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Should U.S. intelligence be paying more attention to Twitter?

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says the U.S. missed what was coming in Egypt because intelligence services were not paying enough attention to what was happening on the Internets:  "There was a good deal of intelligence about Tunisia [but] virtually nothing about Egypt," Feinstein said in an interview with NBC News’ ...

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says the U.S. missed what was coming in Egypt because intelligence services were not paying enough attention to what was happening on the Internets: 

"There was a good deal of intelligence about Tunisia [but] virtually nothing about Egypt," Feinstein said in an interview with NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell. "So there was, to my knowledge, no real warning, either to the White House or, certainly, to the Senate Intelligence Committee or the Congress."

She added that even though the protests apparently were organized in public on Web sites and social media platforms, "I don’t believe there was any intelligence on what was happening on Facebook or Twitter or the organizational effort to put these protests together."

But Feinstein hedged a bit when asked whether the episode was an intelligence "failure."

"I would call it a big intelligence wakeup," she said. "… Open-source material has to become much more significant in the analysis of intelligence."

It’s clear that online communities of activists using social networking sites were key players in the early organization of these protests. and some Internet activism skeptics, such as the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, seem to be stretching pretty hard to downplay their role.

But Feinstein seems to be falling prey to what FP contributor Evgeny Morozov refers to in his new book as "Internet-centrism" — the belief that online developments are the cause not the effect of offline social and political change. 

As Maryam Ishani documents in a new piece on the site today,  Egypt’s online opposition community has been active for years. One of the main activist groups in the current uprising — the April 6 Youth Movement — is named for the date of a textile workers’ strike in 2008.  Many of these activists believed, mistakenly,  that it would be the 2010 parliamentary elections that provided the pretext for the type of mass demonstrations we’ve been seeing this month. 

The difference-makers this month are the tens of thousands of demonstrators who’ve joined these protests but have "never updated a Facebook page or sent out a tweet in their lives". Why they came out now, as opposed to years ago, is a topic for future historians. But some combination of developments in nearby Tunisia, rising commodity prices, and the impending presidential elections surely played a role. Add to that the willingness of the Muslim Brotherhood to join in with the original secular protesters and the unwillingness of the military to use overwhelming force and you have a recipe for what we see today in Cairo. 

Studying the online activities of cyberactivists — who exist in some form in most authoritarian countries — may be a worthwhile use of the U.S. intelligence community’s time. But understanding the political and economic conditions that allow these campaigns to morph into meaningful offline movements would surely be more valuable.  

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