The CIA faces a threat it's never been great at analyzing: the fallout from global recession

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In 1930, few people thought political turmoil in Germany was the most significant event in the world—not with a global Depression underway. Only the year before, in the German national elections of 1929, Adolf Hitler had still been regarded as "something of a joke, a minor figure from a fringe far-right group" whose Nazi Party managed to win just 2.6 percent of the vote and 12 seats in the Reichstag, Liaquat Ahamed writes in his magisterial new history, "Lords of Finance." But the next year, with unemployment soaring and Berlin about to default on its international debt payments—and with the German equivalent of "Hoovervilles" rising in the cities—Hitler drew tens of thousands to his rallies by promising to restore prosperity and purge the profiteers. The Nazi Party leapt into second place in the Reichstag with 107 seats. It was the beginning of a downward political spiral that ultimately eclipsed the economic crisis that sparked it, turning the European continent into a slaughterhouse and changing the world forever.

No one sees any Hitlers on the horizon today, and the current global recession is, as yet, nowhere near as devastating as the Great Depression. But the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies—with the approval of President Obama—are taking a hard look at the political implications of a worldwide crisis that is being compared more and more to that earlier era. When retired Navy Adm. Dennis Blair took over as Obama's "intelligence czar" in January, he told his staff he wanted concerns about the recession at the top of his annual "worldwide threat assessment" to Congress. Among the questions: Would Russia be destabilized? What about China and India? Does a huge new humanitarian crisis loom in Africa? As originally drafted, these economic warnings were mentioned along with more familiar issues, like terrorism. But Blair told his new staff that he wanted to do more than list his concerns about the economic crisis—he wanted to open his presentation with them. "He sharpened it," says one intelligence official familiar with the process who would discuss it only on condition of anonymity.

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