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The weight of Panetta's words

The leadership stories erupting from yesterday's shocking events in Cairo are almost too numerous to count. There is Mubarak's utter defiance in the face of what he calls "foreign dictations," and his now apparent flight from the city of Cairo to an Egyptian resort, according to Egyptian television. There is the confusing transfer of "some" of Mubarak's presidential powers to Omar Suleiman, the vice president. And there is Obama's tricky struggle to decide what to do now that Mubarak seems to have temporarily outsmarted everyone, refusing to go.

But perhaps the most instructive for others is that of Leon Panetta, and the perils of leaders publicly weighing in on highly volatile matters. When asked about news stories that Mubarak would step down Thursday evening, the CIA director told the House intelligence committee, "I got the same information you did, that there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening." His aides quickly scrambled to clarify his statement, saying he was only referring to media reports on the topic.

This was a problematic statement for two reasons. A person in Panetta's position may be repeating the same thing that has already been said on CNN, but his words have the weight of leadership, and that shouldn't be underestimated. Second, even if he was only referring to news stories--and later comments in the session suggest otherwise--the last idea I'd think Panetta's aides would want to project is that the head of the CIA has the same information as the media.

Granted, Panetta wasn't the only one who made erroneous comments about the outcome of yesterday's events. Gen. Hassan al-Roueini, military commander for the Cairo region, told protesters in the square that "all your demands will be met today." Also on Thursday, Egypt's supreme military council announced that it had an emergency session--without Mubarak--and pledged "support for the legitimate demands of the people" and promised "to oversee their interests and security." Even the people directly around Mubarak seem to have been outwitted--Middle East expert Stephen P. Cohen told the Post "the wise men around Mubarak have been outplayed by him. He gradually took the cards out of their hands."

Still, other senior U.S. intelligence officials were far more guarded in their comments, the Post notes, and Panetta surely should have been too. Even when given an opportunity later in the meeting to clarify his earlier statement, he said he wanted to make it very clear "that I've received reports that possibly Mubarak might do that," referring to stepping down.

When leaders make predictions, share information on a sensitive topic or speak out on a topic over which they have no control, they wade into extremely dangerous territory. Their words have a weight that means the statement will be repeated, made more credible and set high expectations that they may or may not be able to live up to. We may get frustrated by the vagaries and demurring by people in charge, but in a highly volatile case like this, it's warranted.

Panetta was right about one thing in his committee testimony. Even the best intelligence can't get you inside another leader's mind. "Our biggest problem is always: How do we get into the head of somebody?" he told members of Congress. Likewise, we won't know what it was in Panetta's head--excitement that a change could be coming, cold hard intelligence that turned out to be wrong or mere reiteration of media reports, as his aides say--that prompted him to make a statement that instantly set up expectations around the world.

By Jena McGregor

 |  February 11, 2011; 10:10 AM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Crisis leadership , Federal government leadership , Foreign Affairs , Succession planning Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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You call this news?

Posted by: Ezra2 | February 14, 2011 10:29 AM

So the press is blaming Panetta for the press taking his answer, about what the press was reporting, out of context.

He was asked about what was being reported in the press and he answered.

Posted by: timothy2me | February 14, 2011 7:50 AM

Are you daffy?

Panetta was perfectloy right.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | February 14, 2011 7:03 AM

This piece of nonsense about Panetta's comment and its timing is a wonderful comparison test for the puny ambitions of hotdog journalists to find a "gotcha" bit on the one hand and the loony ravings of the neocon conspiratorial theorists on the other for someone trying to match up what actually happened with reality. 1) Mabarak is gone just as Mr. Panetta said he had been told and 2) the US press ought to learn how to learn about other countries and cultures before opening their ill-informed laptops. Richard Engel of MSNBC was the only journalist who reported real news accurately in real time. Of course he had only lived in Cairo three years, speaks fluent Egyptian Arabic and knows how the culture works. The rest of the press corps repeated what they thought they heard or simply made it up. In a rational world some kind soul would go to court to have a few of our commetators committed for psychiatric analysis because they are so distant from reality that they are a danger to themselves and others. Enough said.
A good lesson for all.

Posted by: jstrolle | February 13, 2011 3:26 PM

Panetta was perfectloy right. The revolution had won when the army started its communiquees. They were acts of the ultimate leadership.

Posted by: uzs106 | February 12, 2011 3:54 PM

Now we hear what a positive force the Muslim Brotherhood will be. They fail to mention the the Brotherhood has sponsored Hamas, Hezbolla the current Gov't in Iran to name a few!

Posted by: Jimbo77
Did you go to the McCain school of Islamic knowledge? The Brotherhood is Sunni enemies of the Shia in Iran and their agents Hamas and Hezzbollah.

Posted by: jameschirico | February 12, 2011 1:50 PM

When Suleiman lost face with our military giving voice to a day early Panetta call, Adm. Mullen and the joint chiefs read the Supreme Council the riot act. Murbarak stepping down was inevitable whether they did this or not but surely they moved the timeline up.

Posted by: jameschirico | February 12, 2011 1:47 PM

Our intelligence agencies were caught with their pants down. A two-day visit to the Egyptian government by Wisner - then no further face-to-face talks. Basing knowledge on media reports is very chancy, to say the least. HUMINT (human intelligence) has given way to ELINT (electronic intelligence).

Posted by: Utahreb | February 12, 2011 8:49 AM

Panetta may be off a bit, but what rock is Clapper hiding under the majority of the time?

If that guy is in charge of national intelligence -- which he is -- WE ARE IN TROUBLE, regardless what publications Panetta reads to get his 'intelligence'.

This is so typical of Team Obama: lot of talk; little competent work; but spending like there is no tomorrow!

Posted by: wheeljc | February 11, 2011 8:09 PM

The question: Why did he feel compelled to comment?
After his comment it was said he was meerely saying what news reorts were saying. then the next day when Mubarak was safely out of danger with billions he stole from the Egyption people he resins and now that wack left is saying Panetta was right.
You lefties are out of touch with sanity.
The question that needs to be answered is how did Mubarak and his family become billionaires?

Posted by: nychap44 | February 11, 2011 7:45 PM

I respect your newspaper but you jumped the gun on Mr. Panetta's comments. What he said would happen, happened. How the heck can you expect perfection in forecasting events in such a volatile nation as Egypt? Panetta has a difficult job and so do his employees. He did fine.

Posted by: OBX104 | February 11, 2011 6:54 PM

Now we hear what a positive force the Muslim Brotherhood will be. They fail to mention the the Brotherhood has sponsored Hamas, Hezbolla the current Gov't in Iran to name a few!

Posted by: Jimbo77 | February 11, 2011 5:46 PM

It seems that Panetta's CIA is no better informed than John Tenet's CIA during the Texas Moron's administration and Irak.
What are we paying these morons for, watch CNN and then report to the president as if they knew what they were talking about?

Posted by: analyst72 | February 11, 2011 5:35 PM

Face it: L. Panetta engaged in clownish grandstanding, even tho he was only conveying an unverified news story. He's a great guy but sort of weak tea in a key role. He's been an avid apologist for public fubar's of his agency. Oh, yes, of course, there is the great unknown of the classified. But actually, if you read Legacy of Ashes or any other serious history of the organization, you can find traces of only a tiny handful of important successes. It is one more troubled part of government, and it helped make the president--and all of us--look flatfooted and foolish throughout almost all of this crisis. No leadership in Mr. P's public performances recently.

Posted by: axolotl | February 11, 2011 5:24 PM

Ms. McGregor needs to weigh her judgments before publishing them. In this instance, Mr. Panetta of the CIA was absolutely correct, if off by a few hours.

The Washington Post, since the onset of the control by Ms. Weymouth as Publisher and Mr. Brauchli as Executive Editor, appears to take great delight in pointing its judgmental finger at various members of the Obama administration. In the Panetta story, two article were published, one by Mr. Miller and one by Ms. McGregor. Mr. Miller's story has conveniently disappeared from the front pages of the online edition, but Ms. McGregor's story continues to appear. You people had better get rid of it fast, because you, not Mr. Panetta, were wrong.

Posted by: marmac5 | February 11, 2011 5:21 PM

So he should have been a little more coy -- but he was right. And who knows with CIA - it may have been part of the overall subtle thinking that a public pronouncement would envigorate the protests and make it that much less possible for mubarak to cling to power.

In the end it was this article that was premature.

Posted by: John1263 | February 11, 2011 4:59 PM

Excusing Panetta because he was off by a few hours is like excusing the captain of the Titanic because he was off by a few knots.

Posted by: hofbrauhausde | February 11, 2011 4:26 PM

I missed the news story where 1500 people died because of his announcement. Link?

Posted by: mattsoundworld | February 11, 2011 4:40 PM

Excusing Panetta because he was off by a few hours is like excusing the captain of the Titanic because he was off by a few knots.

Posted by: hofbrauhausde | February 11, 2011 4:26 PM

The weight of Panetta’s words as CIA Director for Obama has some liberal socialism political influence in the media and his words are used in the social media propaganda that asserts the protesters are only poor oppressed victims of President Hosni Mubarak. The remedy is to get rid of President Mubarak and that will solve Egypt’s economic and social problems.

It was good to see Hosni Mubarak jerk the news media around a bit with “first he says he will, but then he won’t, and then he says he will” and he leaves? The lesson for revolutionaries is that you can get rid of a President by protests. Let’s see what will happen under military rule. The protesters are so happy for what?

Americans are on the alert to Egypt’s revolution (so-called protesters) to overthrown the President of Egypt. Protesters interested in democracy do not demand the removal of the President. Instead they estabalish a group with a spokes person to articulate the changes they want to see in government and how those changes will improve social unrest and poverty.

It will be obvious to everyone when the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islam groups infiltrate Egyptian government and Egypt is transformed into a Nation of Islam the religion of the Muslim people. The mistake in the Islamic Republic of Iran will be repeated in Egypt right under the nose of the political liberal lefts Obama and possible with his encouragement.

Possibly, the Democrats can disguise the Muslim religious take over until Obama runs his 2012 election campaign. If Obama is elected in 2012, it will be clear sailing for the Muslim world accomplished by the religious banner of Islam.

Posted by: klausdmk | February 11, 2011 3:46 PM

Why is the head of the CIA making predictions to the public? Does he have some secrets he wants to spill? He isn't a sports columnist.

Posted by: slcbbrown | February 11, 2011 3:31 PM

The safe play, to use a sports analogy, would have been for the director to say nothing, particularly when Mubarak had a schedule press conference within 4 to 5 hours. Why not wait and let mubarak announce it himself. I thought the President and the director were upstaging Mubarak. They could not wait to get their two cents in. Just because one is asked a question does not mean one has to answer the question.

Posted by: GBED989 | February 11, 2011 2:45 PM

A+ for CIA Director Panetta!

Seems to me that Mr. Leon panetta made an excellent prediction. His prediction was off by a mere 24hrs...actually, by a mere 16 hrs if you subtract 8hrs for time zone.

If Panetta is an idiot for inaccurately predicting that Hosni Mubarak in far away Egypt-Africa was delusional then ALL AMERICANS ARE SUPER-IDIOTS FOR NOT KNOWING THAT PRESIDENT REAGAN HAD ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE for the 8years that he was in the White House.

Posted by: Whispers | February 11, 2011 2:40 PM

Really? An idiot? In what way? By missing the mark by 24 hours?

Posted by: rockdoc1 | February 11, 2011 2:27 PM

Panetta is a worthy successor to his predecessor "Slam-Dunk" Tenet.

Posted by: sameolddoc | February 11, 2011 2:24 PM

the man is obviously an idiot, and only serves in his position due to cronyism.

Posted by: urallimbeciles | February 11, 2011 2:18 PM

This is a great piece. The CIA has missed every major international event, despite an army of people reading, thinking, gathering intelligence, and paying bribes. USSR, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (and its nuclear weapons), all major intelligence failures. Ultimately, the story of CIA involvement is about how they missed it.
The CIA is like all bureaucracies. Convinced of its need and of its value. Primarily interested in self-preservation.
But it is not a source of reliable predictions heavily impacting on our future.

Posted by: joesolo | February 11, 2011 1:59 PM

It is understandable why he is nicknamed Mr. Magoo.

Posted by: gone2dabeachgmailcom | February 11, 2011 1:28 PM

I agree with Joe Cairo, this is a non-story. You would think the Sherrod firing last year would have taught the media to slow down before throwing someone under the bus.

Posted by: jimmy89 | February 11, 2011 1:09 PM

Gee, I hate to pile on here, but Panetta was absolutely reasonable in how he chose his words. AND, events vindicated his assessment. I see this, too, as a non-story. I'm mad at myself for even taking the time to comment on it.

Posted by: joecairo | February 11, 2011 12:58 PM

Apparently Mubarak was going to step down Thursday but changed his mind, only to be forced to do so today. Panetta did nothing wrong.

Posted by: jake14 | February 11, 2011 12:46 PM

The first reality about Panetta's testimony is that it was essentially right. The second more general reality about the CIA role in a situation like the one in Egypt is that there is no prospect of one that has much value. It is always possible that they have some connections with the military or somewhere else in the society that turn out to have some use. But, in the kind of situation that erupted in Egypt, all kinds of people with no history of political activity get sucked up into rapidly evolving events. Leadership is often not clear and shifting. Chance circumstances can play a big part in the evolution of events. The trajectory of events is in large part determined by unpredictable emotions of large crowds of people. In the most substantial protest that I was involved in, none of the three major events turned out anything like anyone expected in advance. The other reality is that most of the interest in the CIA is displacement activity from those whose world is mostly circumscribed by the Washington Beltline and who are looking for some way that they can participate in the Egyptian events.

Posted by: dnjake | February 11, 2011 12:45 PM

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ......this is the best you can come up with?

Posted by: dbarts27 | February 11, 2011 12:32 PM

Jena you silly little girl. You shouldn't open your mouth when you're not sure of the facts.
Oh wait a minute. That's what you wrote about. How silly.

Posted by: strictly_liberal | February 11, 2011 12:22 PM

So he was a day late.. He called it correctly and yes, he most likely based in on more that media reporting out of Egypt.

Posted by: seabiscuit47 | February 11, 2011 12:17 PM

Eh, Panetta was only off by a few hours.

Posted by: dkp01 | February 11, 2011 11:55 AM

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