Suddenly everyone in Washington wants to know all about the Muslim Brothjerhood, called the Ikhwan in the Arab world. And many Americans are making firm statemenmts about the group—and its alleged ties to Iran—while knowing little at all about it.
The intelligence officials said the spy agencies lacked certainty on the opposition group’s views and tried to explain that the organization has a number of factions and internal disagreements over how it should conduct itself.
The intelligence chiefs struggled to answer questions about the agenda of the Islamist movement, amid accusations the spy services were caught off-guard by the unrest in Cairo that forced Egypt’s strongman Hosni Mubarak to step down.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper told senators at a hearing that the Muslim Brotherhood did not speak with one voice and that he was unsure about its stance on Iran, the Egypt-Israel peace treaty or weapons smuggling into Gaza.
“It’s hard to at this point to point to a specific agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood as a group,” he said.
A dissatisfied Dianne Fein-stein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the spy agencies needed to do better at understanding a group that could shape events in Egypt’s political vacuum.
“From an intelligence perspective, it is critical that we know what is that position [of the Brotherhood] and what is apt to happen. Egypt is the key country in the Middle East. And I worry about that,” she said.
Clapper said the intelligence agencies would bolster their efforts. “This is obviously something we’re going to watch. We’re going to have to step up our observation,” he said.
Feinstein slammed the intelligence agencies for their work on the Mideast turmoil, saying they seemed to miss the importance of social media and that the US military’s Central Command had produced more useful reports.
Clapper, a veteran of the intelligence world, said the Islamist group had diverse “factions” with “a conservative wing whose interpretation of Islam runs counter to broad electoral participation, and a younger, more liberal wing who are more inclined to work through a secular, political process.”
CIA Director Leon Pan-etta—who this month became secretary of defense— told senators the Muslim Brotherhood was not “monolithic.” He said the intelligence services were closely following the organization, which he said included “extremist elements.”
The future role of the Muslim Brotherhood is the subject of heated discussion in Washington, with some lawmakers insisting the group harbors hardline goals.
The intelligence agencies always take a hit when something sudden and unexpected happens in the world, as if they ought to know what no one but God knows. They were severely criticized for not knowing the Shah would fall when even Mehdi Bazargan, who became the first prime minister of the Islamic Republic, was saying for many months that he did not expect the revolution to succeed.
The chief mission of intelligence agencies is not to look into a crystal ball and foresee the future but to ferret out and steal information that other governments are trying to hide.