U.S. intelligence official acknowledges missed Arab Spring signs

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WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence agencies missed evidence of the unrest across the Middle East and North Africa that exploded into popular uprisings last year during the so-called Arab Spring and are now trying to improve early warning systems, a senior U.S. intelligence official said.

David Shedd, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s chief intelligence arm, said analysts failed to note signs “that would have indicated to us, shown us, that there was a growing dissatisfaction ... in the general population


“We missed that.”

It was a rare public acknowledgment of the U.S. intelligence failure regarding the turmoil that has redrawn the Middle East’s political landscape, toppling autocratic rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya and now engulfing Syria. Shedd’s comments were posted Thursday by the American Forces Press Service, a Pentagon information wire.

U.S. intelligence agencies were reporting on popular dissatisfaction with Arab regimes, Shedd said, but analysts failed to characterize the conditions as “bubbling over or creating ... a level of dissatisfaction that would fill Tahrir Square” in Cairo.

One reason for the gap, Shedd said, was that spies were focusing on collecting information from power elites, not opposition groups.


“We were missing a side of reporting that would have provided a better picture of how strong that opposition really was, how capable that opposition was, to respond or react to the shifting of their capability to challenge the status quo,” he said.

“This has now led to a lot more discussion in the intelligence community on how to take advantage of the enormous amount of open-source information that is out there, and draw inferences of where a trend may be.”

Senior intelligence officials initially denied that U.S. spy agencies had made mistakes in failing to anticipate the widespread political upheaval.


James Clapper, director of national intelligence, told a congressional committee in February 2011, as riots spread from country to country, that he believed the intelligence community had tracked Arab unrest effectively. “Specific triggers for how and when instability would lead to the collapse of various regimes cannot always be known and predicted.... We are not clairvoyant.”

A year later, Clapper was more reflective in another congressional hearing.

“Well, we’ve learned that in our focus on counter-terrorism… we were in many of these countries engaged with local liaison services on that subject, and maybe weren’t paying as much attention to the backyard that we were in at the time,” he said.


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--Ken Dilanian