The Cable

Panetta and Steinberg testify on Egypt as Mubarak rumors swirl

As reports streamed out of Cairo that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may cede power to the Egyptian military this evening, several senior administration officials happened to be testifying on Capitol Hill and were questioned directly about the reports.

"Like you I have heard there's a strong likelihood Mubarak will step down this evening," CIA Director Leon Panetta told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in its first hearing under new chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI). A CIA spokesman quickly clarified that Panetta was not independently confirming this fact.

Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which is holding its second hearing under new chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), refused to comment on the latest reports regarding Mubarak. His opening statement before the committee reiterated the administration's support for a gradual transition in Egypt -- an idea that may soon be overtaken by events.

"Changes must come [in Egypt], but we must be mindful that transitions can lead to chaos, or forms of intolerance, or backsliding into authoritarianism," Steinberg said. "We are urging Egypt's government and opposition to engage in serious and inclusive negotiations to arrive at a timetable, game plan, and path to constitutional and political reform. And as they do, we will support principles, processes, and institutions, not personalities."

Ros-Lehtinen was scathing in her criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the crisis, arguing that it has not been supportive enough of the protesters, that there was no contingency planning done by the NSC to prepare for Mubarak's departure, and that the administration's policy over the last two weeks has been constantly changing and unclear.

Steinberg acknowledged the difficulty of establishing and then communicating a clear policy while the events on the ground continued to unfold.

"What is critical as we see this unfolding dynamic is that we remain in our principles, as well as the values and interests that we bring forward, while remaining nimble to adapt to changing circumstances," he said. "It's a little bit like having a good game plan but also knowing when to call an audible."

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy was originally scheduled to testify at the hearing, but was removed from the list yesterday.

Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in Cairo remains fluid. Egypt's armed forces said on Thursday they have started taking "necessary measures to protect the nation" and "support the legitimate demands of the people."

Howard Berman (D-CA), the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, voiced the concerns of many in Congress about the role of the Egyptian military and its intentions regarding democracy and transparency.

"Given the military's influence over the regime - a regime that was born in the military, and whose entire leadership is composed of military men -- the democratic transition will happen if, and only if, the military does play a constructive role," he said.

The Cable

Exclusive interview: Mike Rogers, the new Intelligence Committee chairman

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence holds its first public hearing today, ushering in what new Republican chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) calls a new era of bipartisan, apolitical, and aggressive oversight by a committee that had lost its way over the past few years.

The first hearing will cover "World Wide Threats" and will feature testimony from a host of top administration intelligence officials, including Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director Leon Panetta, National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research, Philip Goldberg.

Rogers sat down for an exclusive interview prior to the hearing with The Cable, during which he promised to reinvigorate the committee's oversight and investigation activities, and use its panel to work with the intelligence community to trim budgets and focus on new threats. He also said that while he seeks harmony with the vast bureaucracy he's charged with overseeing, he has some ideas of his own about how intelligence policy should change

Josh Rogin: What is your overall vision for how the committee should be set up, what it should focus on, and what its attitude should be?

Mike Rogers: One of the main goals is to get the committee back to its original roots. The partisan era of national security should be the rare exception. Over the last few years, the committee has really diminished in the eyes of the intelligence community as the place for national security issues to be discussed, solved, and to conduct proper oversight.... We want to be knowledgeable, we want to be responsive, we need to ask hard questions, and it's ok to conduct thorough oversight. And if we get back to doing that in a bipartisan or non-partisan way, we'll be doing the intelligence community a real service.

JR: Where did the committee go wrong and what were the consequences?

MR: I saw this in the Bush administration. When the political rhetoric exceeded the bounds of the committee it had a negative impact on the committee's ability to do its proper oversight. It became not about true oversight of 17 intelligence agencies...it was the political flavor on national security of the day. When that started, the committee stopped looking as hard as it should have, even at the Bush administration.... It wasn't helpful because it stopped us from asking hard questions.

JR: What are the trends in intelligence threats that you see the committee focusing on?

MR: We have everything from a growing radicalization here at home to a more integrated al Qaeda around the world. Finances have merged, training events have merged, radicalization efforts have merged. Our liaison partners have been damaged through public discourse of things better left unsaid between nations.

WikiLeaks is a great example. We're going to have work hard to regain the trust of our liaison partners overseas.... Cyber is huge. We are going to come up with a policy or law on cybersecurity that will put us in a much better place.... [House Speaker] John Boehner has made that commitment.

JR: How are you going to deal with the intelligence budget and the intelligence authorization process?

MR: The military intelligence budget has not been scrutinized the way it needs to be. I'm going to call it a scrub...in a way that's not been done before. We haven't had an authorization bill in six years. That's not going to happen anymore.... The [fiscal 2011] budget has to get done...that's going to be clean of any policies. When we look at the policies, we're either going to influence the policies by working with the intelligence communities at senior levels, or we will legislate it: it may be a stand-alone bill, it may be part of the defense bill; we'll do it that way.

JR: Are you looking to cut the intelligence budget?

MR: I've told the community that I will be the most ardent protector of mission-essential funds. The last thing we want to do is get to the same place we did in the 1990s where they cut mission-essential funds so they actually couldn't perform at the level they should have been performing at. I'm not going to let that happen. But that doesn't mean we can't find efficiencies and savings in the intelligence budget. We're going to do that in cooperation with the intelligence community.

JR: You've called for the intelligence bureaucracy to be "rattled." What do you want to see happen to that bureaucracy?

MR: I think they have gotten the message. For years this whole town was fighting against [the Office of the Director of National Intelligence] from getting bigger. Director Clapper has gone through it and now says ‘I have a plan and help me work through this plan to make the DNI more effective.' At the end of the day I think that will reduce the bureaucracy that we saw in the past.... It's not just about giving him the first crack at this, he laid out a good plan and we're going to be his partner.... It makes the mission more efficient, and when you make it more efficient I think you'll see the bureaucracy get smaller.

JR: Do you plan to use the committee to investigate the policies that led to the WikiLeaks disclosures?

MR: I think we would be irresponsible if we didn't take a look at the policies that we engage in for information sharing. I've found the happy medium [between the need to know and the need to share], it is ‘the need to know with whom to share.'

JR: Do you still plan to try to get rid of the High Value Interrogation Group as established by the Obama administration?

MR: I'm still a skeptic of the High Value Interrogation Group. In the past, we haven't gotten all the information we need. I'm not sure it's the best use of money and investment in people and we'll make that determination in the next couple of months.

JR: Should laws that govern how the government can collect private information, like the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), be expanded to include email and Facebook?

MR: The way we communicate is changing. As long as it is consistent with due process, and I believe CALEA is, we have to do it. We know bad guys are communicating through Facebook and online video games. It's foolish for America not to keep pace with the changing way the world communicates.

JR: Who do you think is really running intelligence policy in the Obama administration? John Brenner? James Clapper? Leon Panetta? Someone else?

MR: We want to better understand that question. We are going to ask questions and we are going to try to come to the conclusion in how it is structured, how decisions are being made -- and at the end of the day does the structure they have created keep us more safe or less safe? If it's more safe, we're going to be with [the administration], if we come to the conclusion that it's not keeping us as safe as another way, we're going to seek some changes.