The White House Tries to Get Its House in Order Over Egypt

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Protesters weren’t the only ones in turmoil over Hosni Mubarak’s surprising refusal to step down. The U.S. has been slow and ambiguous in articulating its position on Egypt, calling for “an orderly transition” without describing what that would mean. President Obama’s speech in Michigan yesterday made it sound as though he believed Mubarak’s ouster was imminent: “We are witnessing history unfold,” and, “America will do everything we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy.” It sounded like the kind of statement a world leader would give when he was reluctant to ask an autocratic ally to resign but wanted to look unimpeachable in the history books. A senior administration official told the New York Times that Obama “expected that Egypt was on the cusp of dramatic change.”

Testifying before the House of Representatives yesterday morning, CIA director Leon E. Panetta said there was a “strong likelihood” that Mubarak would be out of the presidential palace by the end of the day. But Obama and the rest of the administration who watched Mubarak’s television address on board Air Force One “appeared as taken aback by Mr. Mubarak’s speech as the crowds in Tahrir Square.”

The news cycle has been dominated with stories about the U.S.’s role in propping up Mubarak’s regime, the billions of dollars in military aid, and vice-president Omar Suleiman’s involvement in our rendition program. But it seems all that political and financial support hasn’t even bought us the right to an advance warning when the president is about to drop a bomb on state television.

Now the White House is trying to backpedal. Officials are now saying that Panetta made his statement based not on secret intelligence, but media broadcasts. Who needs the CIA when you can just read Google News?

Panetta’s statement wasn’t the only flub. James Clapper, the director of the Office of National Intelligence, testified that the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is “a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried Al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam.” A problematic statement since, according to ABC News, the Brotherhood also wants Egypt “to become an Islamic state ruled by sharia law.” Also, Muslim Brotherhood. Experts say the Brotherhood is not a monolith and includes some reformers, although there are questions about its commitment to nonviolence. But Janie Smith, director of the office of public affairs for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, thought it might be wise to issue a clarification:

Obama Faces a Stark Choice on Mubarak [NYT]
Office Of The Director Of National Intelligence “Clarifies” Remarks On Muslim Brotherhood [ABC]