Former CIA Director: We Were Surprised by Arab Spring

Leon Panetta says CIA was caught flat-footed and didn’t ‘really understand what was going on’

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Former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the spy agency was caught flat-footed when the popular revolts and armed insurrections known as the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East in the early 2010s.

“Obviously, we made a couple of mistakes that I have always stuck in my mind,” Panetta said in a wide ranging interview on the SpyTalk podcast released Thursday.  “One is, frankly, with the Arab Spring ... We really didn't have that much of a heads up in the intelligence community about the various factors that contributed to the Arab Spring, to really understand what was going on. And what ultimately took place.”

The revolts, prompted by low standards of living under corrupt, repressive regimes across the region, erupted in over a dozen countries and ended up toppling four strongmen, in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. 

Panetta, CIA director from 2009 to 2011 in the Barack Obama administration, said the agency’s “people on the ground were aware of what was happening.” But he added that the agency’s operators and analysts failed to grasp the full picture.

“I just don't think we had a good handle on all of the factors that were at play here,” he said, “whether it was social media, whether it was the economic conditions that were impacting on young people, whether it was their sense of frustration with whatever government they were dealing with…

 “And I think we were not prepared, frankly, to deal with how we would respond to what was happening. And that's something that I think we could have done a better job at.”

The U.S. spends $85.8 billion a year on intelligence, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

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Regrets

Panetta’s description of CIA shortcomings came in response to a question of whether there was anything he regretted during his term as the spy agency’s chief.  Current CIA Director Bill Burns wrote a memoir in 2019 saying he deeply regretted not doing more to stop the Gorge W. Bush administration from its misguided invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he was a senior State Department official.

Luis Rueda, a retired senior CIA operations officer with extensive experience in the Middle East and South Asia, agreed with Panetta about the agency’s failings during the Arab Spring.

“Yes they were caught flat footed,” he told SpyTalk. He blamed “an over reliance on liaison” with the local regimes’ intelligence services  and “some weak” CIA station chiefs in the region during that time.

“We didn't learn shit from Iran,” he added, referring to the 1979 revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah and brought Islamic clerics to power—much to the CIA’s surprise

“It has only gotten worse,” maintains Rueda, who retired after a 28-year CIA career in 2010 but has continued to work as an intelligence consultant since then. “In some places we are afraid to recruit [independent] sources that can tell us what is happening,” he said. “We are afraid” of objections from both local foreign intelligence services and the CIA’s own senior management, “starting with the director,” he said.

Panetta rued missed chances for the U.S. to take a more productive role during the Arab Spring, which has produced unending chaos in Libya and Yemen and then, after a brief, troubled interegnum by the Muslim Brotherhood, a return to dictatorship in Egypt. Tepid U.S. backing for democratic-minded protesters in Syria in 2011 led to a brutal civil war, helped fuel the rise of the Islamic State and ended up further entrenching Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power.

“There were a lot of demonstrations, a lot of young people were taking to the streets. And it was a tremendous opportunity to really try to do some good in that part of the world,” said Panetta. “It's not that we did the wrong things. It's just that we didn't really try to develop approaches that would create some sense of stability in these countries.”

Panetta delved more deeply into the Arab Spring and discussed a wide range of other issues during the 55-minute interview, including the CIA-Navy SEAL operation that took down Osama Bin Laden in May 2011, the agency’s use of torture on terrorist suspects (which was outlawed by Obama), his advocacy of more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and dealing with threats from Russia and China. He served as secretary of defense from 2011 to 2013.

“My greatest fear is that we could suffer a cyber Pearl Harbor in the future that would literally cripple our country,” he said, adding his “hope that we are doing some of the same things” to U.S. adversaries in the cyber realm that they are doing to us.

Listen to the whole interview here or wherever you get your podcasts.