The Race for the Keys

As the Mubarak regime goes into the last stages of existence, the race is on for the real treasures of a great state. Not the relics of antiquity, valuable as these may be, but the intelligence assets of a government which for decades traded them in exchange for Western financial and political support.  With the ultimate fate of the Egypt uncertain, and the final extent of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence uncertain, the disposition of those assets will assume the utmost importance.


The problem goes back to the difficulties of making sausage. People like to eat them, but not many want to know how they are made.  The Western voting public likes to avoid being blown up in subways or being otherwise inconvenienced. That means they have to be protected from certain hard men.

To avoid the political risks inherent in interrogating terrorist suspects, much of the work was outsourced to foreign intelligence agencies, of which Egypt’s was one. The CIA’s former chief of the bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer, gave this testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in April 2007 on the subject of ““Extraordinary Rendition in U.S. Counter terrorism Policy: The Impact on Transatlantic Relations.” “Rendition” is a legal of way of getting other intelligence agencies to do what you don’t want to be seen doing.

The CIA’s Rendition Program began in late summer, 1995. I authored it, and then ran and managed it against al-Qaeda leaders and other Sunni Islamists from August, 1995, until June, 1999.

A.) There were only two goals for the program:

1.) Take men off the street who were planning or had been involved in attacks on the U.S. or its allies.

2.) Seize hard-copy or electronic documents in their possession when arrested; Americans were never expected to read them.

3.) Interrogation was never a goal under President Clinton. Why?

–Because it would be a foreign intelligence or security service without CIA present or in control.

–Because the take from the interrogation would be filtered by the service holding the individual, and we would never know if it was complete or distorted.

–Because torture might be used and the information might be simply what an individual thought we wanted to hear.

B.) The Rendition Program was initiated because President Clinton, and Messrs. Lake, Berger, and Clarke requested that the CIA begin to attack and dismantle AQ. These men made it clear that they did not want to bring those captured to the U.S. and hold them in U.S. custody.

1.) President Clinton and his national security team directed the CIA to take each captured al-Qaeda leader to the country which had an outstanding legal process for him. This was a hard-and-fast rule which greatly restricted CIA’s ability to confront al-Qaeda because we could only focus on al-Qaeda leaders who were wanted somewhere. As a result many al-Qaeda fighters we knew were dangerous to America could not be captured.

2.) CIA warned the president and the National Security Council that the U.S. State Department had and would identify the countries to which the captured fighters were being delivered as human rights abusers.

3.) In response, President Clinton et al. asked if CIA could get each receiving country to guarantee that it would treat the person according to its own laws. This was no problem and we did so.

–I have read and been told that Mr. Clinton, Mr. Burger, and Mr. Clarke have said since 9/11 that they insisted that each receiving country treat the rendered person it received according to U.S. legal standards. To the best of my memory that is a lie.

C.) After 9/11, and under President Bush, rendered al-Qaeda operatives have most often been kept in U.S. custody. The goals of the program remained the same, although the Mr. Bush’s national security team wanted to use U.S. officers to interrogate captured al-Qaeda fighters

1.) This decision by the Bush administration allowed CIA to capture al-Qaeda fighters we knew were a threat to the United States without on all occasions being dependent on the availability of another country’s outstanding legal process. This decision made the already successful Rendition Program even more effective.


Those days, of course, are over. Guantanamo was not bad as an operational concept. But as a political concept it would never fly. Although rendition had many shortcomings, not in the least the fact that the contractor — like Egypt — could give the U.S. what they want distorted and cherry-picked; and despite the fact that anyone interrogated under rendition would fare far worse than the waterboarding that KSM was subjected to, it had the supreme virtue of keeping all the rough stuff at legal arm’s length from Western politicians.  And that, of course, was the most important thing of all.

Like the more prosaic forms of outsourcing, rendition was aimed in part at finding people to do the jobs that “Americans won’t do.” Now, with the imminent transfer of the outsourcing firm to new management, there is the real prospect that the agents, contacts, files, sources and databases which made Egypt so useful will soon be in the hands of those against whom it was directed in the first place. They not only get the sausage, they get the sausage factory.

To imagine the scale of the calamity, here is Scheuer again on the intelligence consequences of trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York City: “In terms of U.S. national security, the New York trials will yield a wealth of intelligence information — both substantive data and details about CIA and FBI sources and methods — to our Islamist enemies. This is an unnecessary and self-inflicted wound on America by the Obama administration.”


If Egypt’s intelligence assets — and the insight they give into standing methods for fighting terrorists — fall into Iran’s hands it would put anything that could have been lost in the KSM New York trial in the shade. And that would only be the beginning. Scheuer also believed that any look into the guts of operations would show just how brutal the war against the jihad has been and create a wave of hatred against American foreign policy and Israel. That is not an unlikely prospect given that Egyptian oppositionists are calling for an inquiry into human rights violations during the Mubarak years. About the only thing you can be sure of is that if the MB comes out on top, the MB is not likely to be portrayed in an unflattering light.

As this site has often argued, morality always has a price. You either pay it — like the saints and the heroes — and endure the danger from upholding your principles. Or you eat the sausage and don’t ask where it comes from.

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The Obama administration, and perhaps a whole political generation, is about to face the question of whether there’s a free lunch. Having said that, it is quite likely that the Iranian secret service, the Syrians, and al-Qaeda are probably running as had as they can to get their hooks on the keys.  Those intelligence assets represent, depending on how you look at it, a record of brutality or incalculable value. Maybe they represent both. How hard will the administration fight to protect them, to snatch them up before the enemy does, is an interesting question. Or is that also beneath them?



Jimmy Carter, reacting to events in Egypt, said recent developments were an “earth-shaking event” and that Hosni Mubarak “will have to leave.” He also claimed the Muslim Brotherhood “has stayed out of it”.

Carter’s remarks came at Maranatha Baptist Church, where he regularly teaches a Sunday School class to visitors from across the country and globe. …

“This is the most profound situation in the Middle East since I left office,” Carter said Sunday to the nearly 300 people packed into the small sanctuary about a half mile from downtown Plains. …

Carter described his relationship with Mubarak, whom protesters want ousted from power.

“I know Mubarak quite well,” Carter said. “If Sadat had a message, he would send Mubarak.” …

As the unrest raged and escalated, Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman, the country’s intelligence chief, as vice president.

“He’s an intelligent man whom I like very much,” Carter said.

Carter has maintained a relationship with Suleiman over the years.

“In the last four or five years when I go to Egypt, I don’t go to talk to Mubarak, who talks like a politician,” Carter said. “If I want to know what is going on in the Middle East, I talk to Suleiman. And as far as I know, he has always told me the truth.”

The former president, who performs work throughout the world for fair elections through The Carter Center in Atlanta, said this was not a revolution “orchestrated by extremists Muslims.

“The Muslim brotherhood has stayed out it,” Carter said.


Well that’s good to know. Things were worrying for a time. It’s interesting to speculate how much of Carter’s thinking reflects the appreciation within the Obama Administration. But although Carter may prove right about the non-involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood in the biggest political opportunity since Jimmy left office, would it be wise to bet the farm on it? Does this mean that it’s time to stop racing for the keys or is it wiser to start building relationships with whoever comes after?

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