Should the CIA Use Sudanese Spies?

Should the CIA Use Sudanese Spies?

The Los Angeles Times has a must-read article today about how the CIA has been using Sudanese nationals to spy on insurgents — including al-Qaida — in Iraq:

The relationship underscores the complex realities of the post-Sept. 11 world, in which the United States has relied heavily on intelligence and military cooperation from countries, including Sudan and Uzbekistan, that are considered pariah states for their records on human rights.

“Intelligence cooperation takes place for a whole lot of reasons,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing intelligence assessments. “It’s not always between people who love each other deeply.”

Sudan has become increasingly valuable to the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks because the Sunni Arab nation is a crossroads for Islamic militants making their way to Iraq and Pakistan.

That steady flow of foreign fighters has provided cover for Sudan’s Mukhabarat intelligence service to insert spies into Iraq, officials said.

“If you’ve got jihadists traveling via Sudan to get into Iraq, there’s a pattern there in and of itself that would not raise suspicion,” said a former high-ranking CIA official familiar with Sudan’s cooperation with the agency. “It creates an opportunity to send Sudanese into that pipeline.”

As a result, Sudan’s spies have often been in better position than the CIA to gather information on Al Qaeda’s presence in Iraq, as well as the activities of other insurgent groups.

“There’s not much that blond-haired, blue-eyed case officers from the United States can do in the entire Middle East, and there’s nothing they can do in Iraq,” said a second former CIA official familiar with Sudan’s cooperation. “Sudanese can go places we don’t go. They’re Arabs. They can wander around.”

The officials declined to say whether the Mukhabarat had sent its intelligence officers into the country, citing concern over the protection of sources and methods. They said that Sudan had assembled a network of informants in Iraq providing intelligence on the insurgency. Some may have been recruited as they traveled through Khartoum.

The CIA’s dependence on Sudanese spies, of course, has significant costs — strengthening the Sudanese government and undermining the Bush administration’s otherwise-principled criticism of the regime’s genocidal policies in Darfur:

Sudan gets a number of benefits in return. Its relationship with the CIA has given it an important back channel for communications with the U.S. government. Washington has also used this channel to lean on Khartoum over the crisis in Darfur and for other issues.

And at a time when Sudan is being condemned in the international community, its counter-terrorism work has won precious praise. The U.S. State Department recently issued a report calling Sudan a “strong partner in the war on terror.”

Some critics accuse the Bush administration of being soft on Sudan for fear of jeopardizing the counter-terrorism cooperation. John Prendergast, director of African affairs for the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, called the latest sanctions announced by Bush last month “window dressing,” designed to appear tough while putting little real pressure on Sudan to stop the militias it is widely believed to be supporting from killing members of tribal settlements in Darfur.

“One of the main glass ceilings on real significant action in response to the genocide in Darfur has been our growing relationship with authorities in Khartoum on counter-terrorism,” said Prendergast, a senior advisor to the International Crisis Group. “It is the single biggest contributor to why the gap between rhetoric and action is so large.”

Is the CIA-Sudan counterterrorism relationship a good idea? That’s a difficult question. Insofar as Sudanese spies are only being used to fight the losing battle in Iraq, the costs seem far greater than the benefits. The article notes, though, that the Sudanese have also been helpful in the wider war on terror:

The U.S.-Sudan relationship goes beyond Iraq. Sudan has helped the United States track the turmoil in Somalia, working to cultivate contacts with the Islamic Courts Union and other militias in an effort to locate Al Qaeda suspects hiding there. Sudan also has provided extensive cooperation in counter-terrorism operations, acting on U.S. requests to detain suspects as they pass through Khartoum.


… Sudan’s contributions have been significant because Sudanese frequently occupy support positions throughout Arab society — including in the Iraq insurgency — giving them access to movements and supply chains.

“Every group needs weapons. Every group needs a meeting place,” said another former high-ranking CIA official who oversaw intelligence gathering in Iraq. “Sudanese could get involved in the support chain or smuggling channels from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.”

A State Department official said Sudan had “provided critical information that has helped our counter-terrorism efforts around the globe.”

I hope that’s true, because the Sudan has been one of the Bush administration’s few foreign-policy accomplishments. But even if the Sudanese spies have been helpful, the administration needs to remember that the Sudan’s cooperation is not motivated solely by a desire to curry favor with the U.S, because it must also be concerned with terrorism:

“The No. 1 consideration in imposing stiffer sanctions is that the Sudanese government hasn’t stopped the violence there and the people continue to suffer,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “We certainly expect the Sudanese to continue efforts against terrorism because it’s in their own interests, not just ours.”

Sudan has its own interests in following the insurgency because Sudanese extremists and foreign fighters who pass through the country are likely to return and become a potentially destabilizing presence.

Sudan’s lax controls on travel have made it, according to one official, a “way station” for Islamist militants not only from North Africa, but also from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.

To be sure, sometimes there is no alternative to making a deal with the devil. The deal, however, needs to be a good one. Whether this deal qualifies remains to be seen.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

I guess this is what is called statecraft.


Newness, where is it?