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The CIA’s complicated relationship with Egypt

February 2, 2011
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SpyTalk, 30 Jan 2011: Like a long and mostly unhappy marriage, the CIA’s relationship with Egypt is complicated, with plenty of ups and downs.

The Egyptian security services and the CIA have been co-dependents for over six decades, from 1952, when the young agency supported the Free Officers movement that toppled the monarchy, to the twilight partnership against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism that began in earnest in 1995.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, the army officer who came to power in 1956, wanted assurances that the CIA would not work against him. Of course, he got them, from the American ambassador, only to be disappointed later.

As Tim Weiner related in “Legacy of Ashes,” his critical history of CIA operations, “a happy-go-lucky case officer carelessly exposed the agency’s relationship with a prominent Cairo newspaper editor named Mustapha Amin [who] had been close to Nasser.” A photograph was taken of the agency officer handing Amin an envelope.

Likewise, the CIA had a dual relationship with Nasser’s successor,Anwar al-Sadat, supporting him with one hand, spying on him with many others.

“A CIA security operation in Egypt, designed to provide…Sadat with protection and warnings of coup and assassination plots, also provided the CIA with electronic and human access to Egypt’s government, its society and its leader,” The Post’s Bob Woodward wrote in “Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987.”

“The place was wired,” Woodward wrote.

The CIA’s double-vision in Egypt, of course, was no different than in any other “friendly” country. But the partnership with its Cairo counterpart intensified in the mid-1990s with the swelling threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

Michael Scheuer, the first head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit, told Congress how the Clinton administration enlisted Egypt as a key collaborator in the agency’s “renditions” program in 1995.

“It was begun in desperation.… We were turning into voyeurs. We knew where these people were, but we couldn’t capture them because we had nowhere to take them” due to legal and diplomatic complications, Scheuer told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing in 2009.

The CIA, Scheuer said, realized that “we had to come up with a third party.” Egypt was the obvious choice, because the Islamic Jihad was trying to bring down the Egyptian government, while many Islamic Jihad militants also worked for al-Qaeda.

“There were no qualms at all about sending people to Cairo,” Scheuer testified.

And there were no illusions. At the CIA, Scheuer maintained, there was a “kind of joking up our sleeves about what would happen to those people in Cairo in Egyptian prisons.”

The CIA shipped between 60 and 70 terrorist suspects to Egypt, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif said in 2005. But he denied torture was routine.

“It happens sometimes, and we’ve seen police abuses all over the world,” Nazif said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “But I don’t think it should be taken as a standard practice.”

The CIA’s man to see in Cairo was Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence boss whom Hosni Mubarak nudged from the shadows Saturday to be his vice president.

“Omar Suleiman negotiated directly with top [CIA] officials” on the renditions, Jane Mayer wrote in “Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals.”

Edward S. Walker, the American ambassador in Cairo at the time, described Suleiman as “very bright, very realistic,” according to the account of Mayer and others. The envoy said that Suleiman was aware of the flap potential of “some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on.”

Walker added that Suleiman “was not squeamish, by the way.”

At the same time, diplomats in the American Embassy were critical of CIA-funded Egyptian security projects, Walker told the British journalist Stephen Grey, including a “program to train Egyptian special operations forces in counterterrorism arrests.”

The trouble, though, was that “too many people died while fleeing…It got to be a little too obvious, and the agency got very nervous about this,’” Walker told Grey.

Now, of course, the tables have been turned. It’s Suleiman and Mubarak who are nervous, and no doubt the CIA, too. But the two Egyptians have far more cause for worry than the CIA.

The spy agency will always find a way — many ways — to stay at work in Egypt after Mubarak is gone.

“I can’t see that there’s any way Mubarkak can reestablish himself,” Walker told SpyTalk on Sunday. “He’s wounded and discredited, and ultimately the military is going to look out for itself.”

As for Suleiman, “If he’s talking to the CIA station chief, I think they’re both talking about stability and how you guarantee it — what’s the best process,” Walker said. “I’m sure they’re doing everything they can to let him know that they’re with him, that we also want stability and a transition to a government that has popular support.”

When Mubarak goes down, in other words, Suleiman won’t be going with him.

“I think that’s right,” Walker said.

As for the CIA, “They’re going to want to make sure that they have continuing access, that the relationship between the intelligence agencies is strong and survives this, so we can use it in the future.”


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