THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Egypt’s spies are key US partners

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post / February 14, 2011

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WASHINGTON — For decades, Egypt’s government has been a crucial partner for US intelligence agencies, sharing information on extremist groups such as Al Qaeda and working hand-in-glove on counterterrorism operations. Now the future of that cooperation is in question.

With the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, a staunch American ally, the contours of the US-Egyptian relationship may well be redrawn. Analysts say a more democratic Egyptian government will have to be responsive to a public that may oppose such special ties with Washington.

Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to gain influence if free and fair elections are held, analysts say. The Islamist group has renounced violence but is openly hostile to Israel and may call for more independence from US policies.

“How will cooperation with the United States on counterterrorism develop in the view of these new constraints? I would argue the space will contract,’’ said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East analyst at the State Department who is now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Some US officials and analysts say they are not overly worried, noting the continued strong role of the Egyptian military and the fact that the United States gives Egypt more than $1.3 billion a year in military aid. Robert Grenier, the former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, said “the Egyptians have as much interest in protecting themselves from violent extremism as everyone else.’’

But with a new government, “the comfort level with the United States may not be so high. They will be more distrusting,’’ in part because of past US efforts to prop up autocratic regimes, he said.

Egypt’s intelligence cooperation is extensive. Its security services have numerous sources in places where the US government doesn’t, like Gaza and Sudan, according to analysts.

And the Egyptians have built up a trove of information on Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups in the Middle East. The Egyptian General Intelligence Service, or EGIS, “has the reputation of being one of the best-informed intelligence agencies on Islamist fundamentalism and its international dimensions,’’ according to Jane’s intelligence information service.

Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University, noted that during the Cold War, the United States had a window into the Soviet Union through Iran, then a strong US ally.

“We have the same kind of window into Iran and other countries via the Egyptians,’’ he said. “Whatever happens next, this will never be the same.’’

In addition to passing on intelligence, Egypt’s security services have worked closely on operations with their US counterparts, particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The cooperation went public with the revelations that U.S. officials secretly “rendered’’ terrorism suspects to countries such as Egypt for interrogation. Human rights groups have denounced the practice because of the notorious torture record of those nations’ security services.

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