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The turmoil in Egypt has the nation's top intelligence officials on edge. In testimony on Capitol Hill today, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, said the protests are potentially a great opportunity to move Egypt in the right direction. But he and others said they were concerned that change in Egypt could destabilize a region vital to U.S. interests.
NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN: The CIA Director, Leon Panetta, quickly got the attention of the House Intelligence Committee this morning when he said there was a strong likelihood Mubarak would give up power within hours. As it turned out, Mubarak did not resign, but he did hand over powers to his vice president.
Panetta and other top intelligence officials were delivering their annual assessment of the top security threats facing the nation, but much of the discussion today focused on what the end of Mubarak rule - when it comes -might mean.
Panetta would not be pinned down, saying only a political transition in Egypt would have tremendous impact one way or another.
Mr. LEON PANETTA (Director, CIA): If it's done right, it will help us a great deal in trying to promote stability in that part of the world. If it happens wrong, it could create some serious problems for us and for the rest of the world.
GJELTEN: The national intelligence director, James Clapper, said the effort of the Egyptian people to bring about peaceful change offered what he called a counter-narrative to al-Qaida propaganda - it doesn't fit the al-Qaida story that corrupt governments must be attacked through violence.
But Panetta said uprisings are unpredictable, with no way to know whether leaders will make the right decisions at the right moments.
Democrat Jan Schakowsky wanted to know what the events in Egypt would mean for specific countries, including America's number one ally in the region.
Representative JAN SCHAKOWSKY (Democrat, Illinois): Have you done any particular analysis of what the changes would mean to Israel?
Mr. PANETTA: Yes, we have. And we'd be happy to share that with you in another forum.
GJELTEN: Panetta would not say more publicly about what exactly the CIA has concluded about the impact on Israel.
As for other countries, the intelligence officials today said the protests in Tunisia and Egypt have helped them understand what may lie in store for others in the region. Panetta said several of them share the conditions that gave rise to these protests: a lack of political freedom, economic stagnation and high youth unemployment.
Mr. PANETTA: I think all of those factors are at play in a number of nations across that region. All of which means we've got to pay a great deal of attention. Because I think the triggers, the factors that kicked off what happened in Egypt could very well impact in other areas.
GJELTEN: James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, zeroed in on one country, Yemen, and the challenges facing the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Mr. JAMES CLAPPER (Director, National Intelligence): He has secessionists in his own country, the presence of al-Qaida, and he's another leader who's been in place for a long time.
GJELTEN: But Clapper also noted that Saleh has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaida. And at today's intelligence hearing, it was that group - al-Qaida in Yemen - that was portrayed as the top terrorist threat right now.
So whether the U.S. government would welcome the toppling of Saleh's government is hardly clear, just as it's uncertain whether a chain reaction of popular uprisings in the Middle East would really be seen as good news.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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