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.
February 11, 2011; 10:10 AM ET |
Federal government leadership
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