Within minutes, senior aides to Panetta sought to tamp down the impact, saying he was merely referring to media reports. But by then, the comments had ricocheted around the Internet, underscoring U.S. confusion about events unfolding in Egypt, as well as the perils of publicly weighing in on such developments while serving as director of CIA.
The agency has been under pressure to help President Obama and other policymakers navigate the crisis in Egypt, even though its outcome is largely contingent on the internal deliberations of one man.
Panetta acknowledged the daunting aspect of that assignment in testimony before the House intelligence committee, saying that for spy services, “our biggest problem is always: How do we get into the head of somebody?”
Even within Egypt’s government, there has been confusion about Mubarak’s intentions. His defiant speech Thursday evening, in which he vowed to stay in office until elections are held in September, when his term ends, came after Egyptian military officials had signaled Mubarak’s imminent departure earlier in the day.
Panetta, who had little intelligence experience before taking the CIA job two years ago, has been praised for his skill in leading a notoriously temperamental agency, and for handling public controversies with a deft touch.
His testimony Thursday as part of an annual hearing on national security threats, which coincided with new chaos in Cairo, seemed to mark a rare misstep.
Unlike other senior intelligence officials who were more circumspect in their comments on Egypt, Panetta did not hesitate in offering assessments of the rapidly shifting events.
After the committee chairman referred to media accounts predicting that the Egyptian president would step down, Panetta said, “I got the same information you did, that there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak may step down this evening, which would be significant in terms of where the hopefully orderly transition in Egypt takes place.”
Shortly thereafter, a U.S. intelligence official said that Panetta “was clearly referring to press reports alluded to” by the panel chairman, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).
The “strong likelihood” language was quickly picked up by media outlets covering the event. The Washington Post carried the statement prominently on its Web site for much of the day and posted an article with a fuller account of Panetta’s comments at midday.
The explanation that Panetta was citing news accounts protected him from being on the hook if the prediction turned out not to be true. But it also carried a more subtle public relations risk, suggesting that the CIA chief was not necessarily any better informed than others at Thursday’s hearing, scanning their cellphones for breaking news.