Analysis: Arab revolutions cause blind spot for US spies

Christopher Dickey


An unusually blunt piece published in Newsweek magazine describes the Arab democratic revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere as serious detriments to US intelligence collection in the Muslim world. Written by Newsweek’s Middle East Regional Editor Christopher Dickey, the lengthy article argues that the ongoing political changes in several Arab countries make US counterterrorism professionals long for the days “when thuggish tyrants, however ugly, were at least predictable”. It even quotes an unnamed senior intelligence officer who denounces the celebration of democracy in the Arab world as “just bullshit”, and sees “disaster […] lurking” in the region. The reason for such vehement reaction is plain: US intelligence professionals are witnessing an elaborate network of informants across the Arab world, which they painstakingly built and cultivated since the late 1960s, crumble before their very eyes. These informants, who had senior government positions in secularist Arab dictatorships, “are either gone or going”, says Christopher Boucek, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. An illustrative case is that of Moussa Koussa, Libya’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Director of the country’s Mukhabarat intelligence agency from 1994 to 2009. When he defected to Britain, in March of this year, Koussa deprived Washington and London of one of their most lucrative intelligence channels in North Africa. Similar stories are unfolding in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, where the loss of intelligence cooperation suffered by the US as a result of the crumbling of the country’s dictatorial apparatus has resulted in chaos in American counterterrorist circles concerned with al-Qaeda activities there. Also quoted in the piece is Edward Walker, a college professor who was formerly Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. He criticizes the US intelligence community for becoming “far too overreliant” on dictatorial government networks across the Arab world in recent decades. “When you are totally dependent on local intelligence organizations, you tend to protect them”, he says, and in the process you become blind to what those regimes will not see.

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Expert news and commentary on intelligence, espionage, spies and spying, by Dr. Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen.

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