No matter how things shake out in Egypt, one thing has become depressingly clear: Something is very wrong with the American intelligence services.
First it was CIA Director Leon Panetta, telling a House committee there was a "strong likelihood" that Mubarak would step down Thursday night -- an erroneous prediction that, the CIA later admitted, turned out to be based on "press reports," not agency field work.
Then it was Panetta's nominal boss, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, telling Congress that the violent pro-jihad Muslim Brotherhood is "largely secular" and has "eschewed violence."
Of course, the CIA failed to see the coming collapse of the shah's government in Iran as well as the fall of the Soviet Union -- not to mention the entry of Pakistan and India into the nuclear club. Then came 9/11.
In the wake of that failure, Congress and the Bush administration reorganized the 16 different agencies of the intelligence community (known in the trade as the IC). Among the changes was the effective demotion of the CIA director, long considered the head of the IC, and the creation of a new top job, the director of national intelligence.
In theory, this was supposed to streamline the chain of command and get the IC's disparate factions -- including the vast new Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, the FBI, the National Security Agency, the various military intelligence services and others -- to pull together under a leader with direct access to the president.
In practice, it hasn't worked out that way, with the DNI's authority more theoretical than practical. In less than six years, we've already had five DNIs. In that time, we've also seen the Fort Hood massacre, the attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit, the deaths of seven CIA agents and contractors in Afghanistan in a security-lapse suicide bombing, and the Times Square near-miss.
But that's not the most worrying part. Rather, it's the apparently willful blindness (in Andrew McCarthy's famous phrase) at the highest levels that inhibits our ability to properly assess this particular enemy in both the military and diplomatic realms.
The obvious example: The Muslim Brotherhood, which may well end up with a seat at the table in Cairo when the dust settles, openly proclaims its adherence to sharia law and its goal of a worldwide caliphate. Yet, in keeping with the Obama administration's policy of rarely if ever criticizing Islam or Islamists, the DNI reflexively whitewashed the nature of the organization, which officially is banned in Egypt.
Clapper's office quickly "clarified" his remarks about the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood -- "he is well aware that the Muslim Brotherhood is
not a secular organization," said a spokesman -- but the damage was done.
Nor was this Clapper's first brush with ignorance. The DNI was blindsided in a December interview with Diane Sawyer, who asked him about the London bombing plot that had just been broken up. She got a blank look in return; Clapper hadn't heard of it.
The larger issue here is the nature of the people Obama has appointed to these sensitive positions, so crucial to our national safety.
Panetta's 2009 appointment was widely opposed, not just by IC professionals but by fellow Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who felt the post required someone with a background in intelligence work -- not a former congressman and White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton. His selection signaled that henceforth the agency would be responding as much politically as professionally. So it was hardly a surprise to find him echoing the administration's Mubarak-must-leave-now line and basing his remarks on what CNN was showing.
But the middle of an ongoing war and rapidly changing world events is no place for politics. And it's certainly no place for politically correct ignorance.