Sudan, CIA Forge Close Ties, Despite Rights Abuses

Farai Chideya talks with Ken Silverstein, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, about his recent article highlighting strong ties between the U.S. and Sudanese intelligence services, despite the Bush administration's criticism of human-rights violations in the African country.

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Last year, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told senators that genocide had taken place in the Darfur region of the Sudan. The word `genocide' has legal ramifications, and using it is hotly debated. Now another debate is brewing over the increasingly close intelligence relationship between the United States and that East African nation. Washington says the Sudanese government has been cooperating and fighting terrorists who threaten the United States. Many say this will surely complicate discussions between the two nations on issues of human rights. NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with Los Angeles Times correspondent Ken Silverstein, who's following the story.

Mr. KEN SILVERSTEIN (Los Angeles Times): Undeniably, on the intelligence level, the partnership between the CIA and the Mukhabarati Sudanese equivalent of the CIA has been a big success. I mean, on--the relationship has provided the United States with a lot of valuable information, and beyond simply information, the Sudanese have provided access to suspects that US agencies wanted to question. They have informed us on activities in parts of the world where our own people really don't have the freedom of movement to gather information. They have even rolled up a network in Sudan where you had Saddam Hussein sympathizers prior to the war and after the US invasion trying to recruit jihadists to go to Iraq and oppose American troops. And the Sudanese monitored that network, ultimately rolled it up, and apparently, based on interrogations of people they detained during that operation, learned information that was used to break up cells in neighboring states.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Well, what it sounds like, though, is that the Sudan is also on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. That certainly doesn't sound good. So why does our government trust the Sudanese government's intelligence agencies?

Mr. SILVERSTEIN: The question of trust is always out there in terms of these liaison partnerships between the CIA and foreign intelligence services. It's an issue with every partner we have because different agencies around the world have different agendas from our own. And so for both sides, I think, it's a practical partnership. And both sides, of course, are slightly weary of the other but vet the information that they receive and sort of make sure that the partnership is working out for their own side's interests.

In terms of Sudan's placement on the state sponsors of terror, the regime is certainly controversial. Osama bin Laden lived in Sudan from 1991 to '96. And al-Qaeda at the time was a fledgling organization, but it was based there along with him. And the Sudanese government was accused of supporting terrorist groups around the world.

At this point in time, I don't think anyone believes Sudan really belongs on the list of state sponsors of terror. The government there is certainly guilty of a variety of sins, but sponsoring terrorism is really not one of them. I was told by a senior administration official that they've gone way past a passing grade on that issue, in fact, but that politically it's impossible to take them off the list because of the ongoing conflict in Darfur, where the administration has accused them of genocide, and the UN has accused them of committing, if not genocide, war crimes that, as the UN put it, could be as heinous as genocide.

So, oddly enough, though they have a past relationship with terrorist organizations, I don't think anyone really believes they belong on the list of state sponsors anymore. And they'll probably--my guess is they'll come off at a time where it's not as politically sensitive.

The issue, I think, of more immediate concern is the question of Darfur and their general human rights record. And that's where I spoke to people who said this is a really unattractive regime, and that certainly should be a factor in determining, you know, what sort of relationship we have with the regime on an intelligence level or on a political level.

CHIDEYA: How should or how does the US government classify other governments in terms of helpful, good, bad, useful, dangerous? What does this example that you've reported on say about how the US government approaches other governments?

Mr. SILVERSTEIN: Well, that is a big question. I mean, I think what the story shows is that the Bush administration--as we all know, their top priority is what they call the war on terrorism. And the administration is very eager to line up support around the world. And they have put an emphasis on recruiting regimes in the Middle East which are particularly helpful or can be particularly helpful in the war on terror because those Middle Eastern intelligence agencies have much greater ability to penetrate terrorist organizations because the majority of recruits come from their countries, the organizations themselves are based in their countries. So the question is: Should we be using connections with controversial allies in the war on terror? And it's a very complicated question, because they can do things that we can't do, and at the same time, our government accuses them of very serious human rights violations.

You know, there's no getting around the fact that our most effective allies in the war on terror in terms of intelligence agencies are probably the Pakistani, ISI, the Egyptians. The Jordanians have a very, very effective intelligence service. The Sudanese have become very important. And all of these countries, if you read the State Department human rights reports on them, talk about very, very serious human rights abuses committed by those governments. So it's an inherent dilemma. And I can only describe the dilemma; I can't answer it.

CHIDEYA: Well, we'll be looking for more of your reporting. Ken Silverstein has been covering the ties between the Sudanese and United States governments for the Los Angeles Times. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. SILVERSTEIN: Thank you.

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