For ten years at least and more likely 15, and most certainly since March 6. 2010 when President Mubarak of Egypt underwent gall bladder surgery, we have known that the 82 year old President of Egypt could die or be incapacitated at any moment. We have also known that there was no clear path for succession. Structurally, Mubarak had fixed the system so that his son Gamal could take over. But there were serious doubts that the Egyptian military would accept a civilian like Gamal or accept the ignominy of copying Syria by passing the torch down the family line. Egyptian pride is a characteristic we know very well. So we knew that the actuarial tables suggested an end in sight and that the process for succession was uncertain.
So why was it a surprise when demonstrations peaked in Cairo and Mubarak was forced out by his military? Why was there no contingency plan on the shelf for an event that was unpredictable only in its timing? And why were we caught flat footed when two-thirds of the population, those who are under 30, said, Enough, "Kifayya." And yet the Administration lurched from "Mubarak is not a dictator" to "Egypt is stable" even while the TV cameras were documenting a massive protest. Where was our intelligence community and who was advising our President, Vice President and Secretary of State?
Prediction and sooth saying are very much the same thing - brilliant when proven correct and forgotten when proven wrong. The signs were there - unemployment of the under 30's, an educated youth population without jobs and prospects, cultural barriers to the unemployed for marriage and family, an underpaid and undereducated police force, a judicial system that depends on confessions rather than forensics and investigation for convictions, a conscript military with the officers running a parallel state, a system of crony capitalism that enriched the connected and ignored the rest, the palliative of reasonable economic growth by the IMF's numbers that somehow never reached the people.
But Mubarak had survived for 30 years. Our predisposition was to assume that he would survive for the next thirty. What was the tipping point that would suggest that what had worked in the past would no longer work today? And who was paying attention to the 20 somethings who were about to lead a revolution?
Now we have another example of the failure of our intelligence. We have just learned from Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, also known by the codename "Curveball," that he made up the reports of Saddam Hussein's mobile biological labs in Iraq. And with those reports Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the world at the UN and accused Saddam Hussein of accumulating weapons of mass destruction - weapons that only existed in al-Janabi's mind and in his desperation to push the United State into war. This despite the fact that the CIA's European chief had already raised doubts about the report and about al-Janabi. Yet the Administration, through the CIA Director and others, pressed Powell hard with the absolute certainty that comes from true believers.
In the case of Mubarak, we had a strong predisposition to accept his likely survival and so we were not prepared. With curveball we had a key portion of our political establishment that wanted to believe in him so that we could justify the invasion of Iraq.
We need to do better. We need to break the chains of assumptions and expectations and predispositions and agendas. We need to put analysis and critical thinking before ideology,political party, and the lessons of the past. (We may have learned those past lessons too well.) And we need an analytical capability in our intelligence community that is immune from politics and changing administrations. We have the talent. But even if we had such an institution, would we listen to it?