By John Terrett
The heads of US National Intelligence, the CIA and the FBI testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington DC in a rare public appearance together in one room.
At times, President Obama's Director of National Intelligence - his point man in the intelligence community - was forced to answer for his staff's past performance, in particular accusations that they failed to properly alert the White House to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
James Clapper, director of national intelligence told the select committee: "What intelligence can do in such cases is reduce, but certainly not completely eliminate, uncertainty for decision makers whether in the White House, the Congress, the embassy or the foxholes as we did in this instance but we are not clairvoyant."
Senators took the opportunity to press Clapper on the future make-up of the Egyptian government, especially the role that might be played by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Clapper called the group "only one voice" in Egypt's new political order but acknowledged the intelligence community knows little about where the Muslim Brotherhood stands on key issues.
"We're gonna watch we're gonna have to step up our observation we're gonna have to see how the constitutional reform effort unfolds," he said.
Clapper had to row back from comments he made last week that the Brotherhood was largely secular - his office later clarifying that under Mubarak's rule fundamentalist Islamic groups were banned.
The role of social media in intelligence gathering came up frequently during the almost two hour session.
Senators wondered how could the intelligence services not be as well informed as people on Facebook and Twitter about the spirit of revolution in the Middle East.
This is how the co-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democrat Dianne Feinstein put it:
"This ought to be watched very carefully to be able to give our policymakers and our leadership some advanced notice."
Her point was answered by the CIA Director Leon Panetta.
"The fact that, you know, that you're on a website or a social network is not necessarily predictive."
Panetta acknowledged more work needs to go into monitoring social websites to find out where the "tipping point" lies between unrest and revolution.
This Senate hearing was titled "The World Wide Threat Hearing" and among the threats to U.S. homeland security as listed by the intelligence chiefs - al Qaeda - in particular al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula - and its attempts to recruit Americans to carry out attacks.
Iran's capacity to build a nuclear weapon if its leaders choose ... and a new one, the threat from cyber-space.
Intelligence chiefs feel this could be the battle ground of the future.
John Terrett is a Washington-based correspondent for Al Jazeera English.
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|William A. Cook|