Did CIA director Leon Panetta mislead the media on Egypt? Or did the media mislead the public on Panetta?
During congressional testimony Thursday on the annual threat assessment – scant hours before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s latest speech – Panetta responded to a question on Egypt by appearing to confirm reports that President Mubarak was likely to resign, probably by nightfall. Within minutes, Internet headlines appeared and broadcasts blared that the CIA chief was heralding Mubarak’s imminent downfall. Agency officials hastily tried to damp that down, saying he was only referring to media reports, but the damage was done.
But what did Panetta actually say?
The CIA chief’s statements came during a line of questioning about intelligence reporting on Egypt. Charges have been made – mostly by politicians – that the spy agencies were caught off guard by the uprising in Egypt and failed to warn policymakers. And if there is one thing policymakers do not like, it is surprises.
First, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the spy agencies have long tracked the undercurrent of unrest in Egypt, but that it was impossible to predict what would spark unrest.
Then it was Panetta’s turn. He likened trying to pick that one spark that would ignite the situation to predicting earthquakes. Then, pressed on the current situation in Egypt, he said (from the transcript, italics added):
PANETTA: “…And as you can see, I got the same information you did, that there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening, which would be significant in terms of where — where the hopefully orderly transition in Egypt takes place.”
And later in the hearing, in a colloquy with Rep. Jan Schakowsky:
PANETTA: “… Let me say, just to make very clear here, that I’ve received reports that possibly Mubarak might do that. We are continuing to monitor the situation. We have not gotten specific word that he in fact will do that, but… “
SCHAKOWSKY: “Does that mean Suleiman would — would take over? Do we know that?”
PANETTA: “I — I don’t know the particulars of how this would work, but I would assume that he would turn over more of his powers to Suleiman to be able to direct the country and direct the reforms that hopefully will take place.”
Two things to point out here: first of all, Panetta never in fact said he got the information from intelligence reporting. It was vague, sure, but intelligence officers have to do be cagey. It may well have been from real-time media reports from Cairo, as his aides asserted. (And, it might be added, some intelligence types don’t like to admit they get key information from open sources, like radio, TV, and newspapers. Doesn’t quite have the same cachet as the secret stuff. But in the information age, they often do get it from open sources – and it might be wrong.)
Second, and most important: Panetta confirmed nothing. Look at the italicized phrases. He in fact offered carefully worded qualifiers: “strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down,” reports that “possibly Mubarak might” leave, but “no specific word” that he would.
It seems that many in the media did not carefully sift through what was actually said before blaring to the world that the supposedly prescient chief of the most famous spy agency in the world was confirming the departure of the president of Egypt. It underscores how the insatiable 24-hour news cycle has eroded standards of accuracy. (As an aside, with all due lack of modesty, I am proud to say we here at VOA News, after much discussion, did NOT report that CIA Director Panetta was confirming Mubarak’s impending resignation. We’ll give ourselves a pat on the back for that, if you don’t mind.)