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“Omar Suleiman, the CIA’s Man in Cairo and Egypt’s Torturer-in-Chief”

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During his televised speech on February 10, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak delegated some of his presidential authority to handpicked vice president Omar Suleiman. Professor Lisa Hajjar of the University of California, Santa Barbara, chronicles Suleiman’s record, including his role in the U.S. extraordinary rendition program, his close ties to Israel, and his personal involvement in the torture of prisoners. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “Uprising in Egypt,” our Democracy Now! special. And you can see the live streaming of what’s happening in Tahrir Square and in Alexandria at our website at democracynow.org, as we stream live and broadcast on radio and television around the country and around the world. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan Gonzalez.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, during his televised speech last night, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak shocked much of the world when he announced he would not resign. Instead, he vowed to delegate some of his presidential authority to handpicked vice president Omar Suleiman.

PRESIDENT HOSNI MUBARAK: [translated] I decided to delegate to the Vice President responsibility of the president according to the constitution. I know very well that Egypt will overcome this crisis and that its will will not be broken. It will stand on its feet again with the commitment and honesty of its children, all of her children, and will return the cunning of plotters and the gloating of the gloaters.

AMY GOODMAN: Shortly after Mubarak spoke, Vice President Omar Suleiman addressed the nation.

VICE PRESIDENT OMAR SULEIMAN: [translated] Youth of Egypt, youth of Egypt and its heroes, go back to your homes and your jobs. The nation needs your arms to build, improve and be creative. Do not listen to tendentious satellite channels and channels which have no aims except to mesmerize and to weaken Egypt and ruin its image. Listen only to what your consciences instruct you to do, your awareness and your appreciation of dangers surrounding you.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Omar Suleiman is a longtime ally of the United States. He played a key role in the U.S. extraordinary rendition program. He also underwent training in the 1980s at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School and Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Newly released classified U.S. diplomatic cables from WikiLeaks reveal that Israeli officials have long hoped that newly appointed Egyptian vice president Omar Suleiman would eventually succeed Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt. In an August 2008 cable, a U.S. diplomat wrote, quote, “There is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman.”

AMY GOODMAN: For more about Suleiman, we’re joined right now by Lisa Hajjar, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She recently wrote an article called “Omar Suleiman, the CIA’s Man in Cairo and Egypt’s Torturer-in-Chief.”

Lisa Hajjar, lay out what you know about the man who Mubarak says he’s handing over some responsibilities to.

LISA HAJJAR: Well, Omar Suleiman, as Juan had just noted, started his career, in terms of relating to the United States, in the '80s. In 1993, he became the head of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services, which is just somewhat like the United States CIA. It does external security, but it's part of the military. In the 1990s — I mean, we’ve been thinking and hearing a lot about Suleiman’s role in the war on terror, extraordinary rendition, but for the United States, rendition began under Clinton. It was regular rendition rather than the extraordinary kind. And it was developed very much in cooperation with Egypt, and specifically with Suleiman, because at that time, as al-Qaeda was developing and engaging in attacks in Egypt and Africa and elsewhere, the desire was to be able to pick up, kidnap people and transfer them to countries for trial. And so, in the 1990s, a number of suspected Islamist terrorists were picked up in other countries, transferred to Egypt. So, Suleiman was at that point already facilitating this approach.

And Suleiman, of course, had — you know, not only as the chief of Egyptian intelligence, but also ideologically deeply committed to an anti-Islamist politics, and something that endeared him certainly to George Bush when, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, just within days, President George Bush authorized the CIA to engage in a much different kind of program, establishing the black prisons, the extraordinary rendition program, which meant the right to kidnap people from anywhere and either disappear them into black sites or send them to third countries for torture by proxy. And Egypt was the primary destination, although other countries were also destinations for these American CIA torture flights.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Lisa Hajjar, you also write about his role in helping Israel and the United States repress the Palestinians in Gaza through the destruction of the tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt and that provide a lifeline, basically, for the Palestinians in Gaza. Could you talk about that?

LISA HAJJAR: Sure. I mean, his — you know, he really has defined himself politically and ideologically as an ardent anti-Islamist, and in that regard — and has very close relations with Israel. He held, has held for years, the Israel dossier for the Foreign Ministry, in addition to his position as the head of security, and so was very much of the same mind as Israel in terms of adamant opposition to Hamas. And even during the period of the Operation Cast Lead, very end of 2008, January 2009, when Israel was militarily attacking and besieging Gaza, and that period, he was the one who facilitated the blockage of Gaza from the Egyptian side. And subsequent to that, he has demolished or overseen the demolition of the tunnels through which both arms but also foodstuffs had been able to go into Gaza. So, he’s also been quoted as saying — you know, sharing in the Israeli position that Gazans should basically be kept on a very strict diet. So, a deeply anti-humanitarian position towards Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Lisa Hajjar, there’s so many things you raise in this. You quote Jane Mayer, The New Yorker writer, quoting former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Walker, describing the Egyptian counterpart, Suleiman, as “very bright, very realistic,” adding that he was cognizant that there was a downside to “some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way,” Walker said, referring to Suleiman. And I wanted you to address two different people, to tell us their stories, so significant: one in which Suleiman tortured a man himself, the Egyptian-born Australian citizen, Mamdouh Habib, and then this very significant case of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who U.S. officials hoped would link Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda.

LISA HAJJAR: Yes. Well, as I mentioned, Egypt was a very significant destination for this torture by proxy. The case of Mamdouh Habib, he was an Egyptian-born Australian citizen who was arrested in — he was in Pakistan, he was arrested in Pakistan in 2001. And, you know, Habib’s situation illuminates a much broader phenomenon, just to put this in context. The United States was operating at that time on the assumption that anybody who is in either Afghanistan or Pakistan who was not Afghani or Pakistani should, under former vice president Dick Cheney’s One Percent solution, should be assumed to possibly be a terrorist. And so, you know, any Arabs — and, you know, that’s why so many people were rounded up and either shipped off to the CIA or rendered to other countries. So Habib was picked up by the Pakistanis, tortured in Pakistan, under questioning with CIA agents present, was then extraordinarily rendered to Egypt, where he was subjected to brutal torture, electric shocks, he was suffocated in water, beaten and hung by his wrists.

But the account that he subsequently, in his own autobiography, My Story, tells is that on one day, when he was being tortured and questioned about his ties to al-Qaeda or concessions to involvement in terror, he was smacked so hard on the face by the person was questioning him that his blindfold was dislodged. And the person was revealed to be Omar Suleiman. And Suleiman was frustrated that Habib, who, as we now know, was absolutely innocent of any kind of ties, but this was the time when, you know, they wanted to get intelligence, regardless of the circumstances and the notion that people were dissembling. So another thing that Habib recounts that Suleiuman did to try and break him was he instructed a guard there in the interrogation room to kill a Turkistani prisoner to show Habib that they were serious. And so, the guard killed the prisoner with what was accounted as a vicious karate kick. And, you know, ultimately, Habib was then sent back to Bagram, ended up in Guantánamo, and was released ultimately because there was absolutely no evidence that he was guilty of anything. But his case, I think, is extremely indicative.

AMY GOODMAN: And al-Libi?

LISA HAJJAR: Al-Libi. So, al-Libi actually was, you know, a militant, had been based in Afghanistan, was someone who was a trainer or ran the al-Khaldan camp. And he was captured fleeing, in November of 2001, fleeing out of Afghanistan, picked up. He ends up in Egypt. You know, and again, many people ended up there. Al-Libi was brutally tortured.

Now, in the fall of — the late fall of 2000 and early winter of 2003 — 2002, 2003, the Bush administration was intent on going to war with Iraq. And they wanted evidence to be able to build public support both domestically and internationally. And so, as Scott Horton and others have reported, this was a period when torture and just the intensity of interrogations escalated, because CIA and military interrogators were under incredible pressure to produce the kind of evidence of specifically an al-Qaeda-Saddam Hussein connection. And in fact it was al-Libi who gave the information, under torture, in Egypt, that two al-Qaeda operatives had gone to Iraq for training in chemical and biological weapons. However, the confession was false, although it was used by Colin Powell, that along with the yellowcake from Niger sale, the two pieces of evidence that were used to justify the war in Iraq when he spoke to the United Nations in February of 2003. The war begins. Subsequently, we learn that al-Libi’s confession was false, and he said that he had just said whatever his interrogators wanted him to say in order to make the torture stop.

But what becomes interesting is once it’s revealed that al-Libi had recanted his testimony, which — you know, once the Iraq war is going so poorly and there are no weapons of mass destruction, al-Libi is then essentially disappeared. I mean, no one knows where al-Libi went for a while. He didn’t end up in Guantánamo, and — you know, because his people would have wanted to question him about the evidence he had — or the statement he had made in relation to this massively devastating war. In 2009, April 2009, several Human Rights Watch investigators were in Libya doing an investigation of Libyan prison conditions, and there they discovered al-Libi. And they saw him and spoke to him, and according to Human Rights Watch, they said he was in relatively OK health and so on. But the fact then they revealed al-Libi is alive, he’s in Libya, and it immediately re-raised the questions of people wanting to speak to him.

This was deeply humiliating to Omar Suleiman, because it was known that he had been tortured in Egypt, he had given a false confession, and this false confession had led to a war that is deeply unpopular. So, in May of 2009, Suleiman flies to Libya in order to meet with his counterpart. And by the time Omar Suleiman’s plane is on its way back to Cairo, al-Libi had committed suicide in his prison cell. So, he’s gone now. No one can ask him about his experience in Egyptian torture chamber.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And this is the man who Mubarak appointed or handed over his presidential powers to last night. Reports on Suleiman that we’re not getting in the rest of the commercial media here in the United States.

LISA HAJJAR: Right. Well, I think — and, you know, in some ways, Suleiman wasn’t particularly — I mean, he was certainly known to Egyptians, but his record of torture is something that people who follow torture have been aware of for a long time. And I think it’s important now for the media, for particularly progressive media, to be able to bring this story to light. And as it’s filtered back into Egypt, some of these accounts, I think it’s also — this is not the only thing that’s diminishing Omar Suleiman’s legitimacy, but — because he can do that himself every time he opens his mouth, but, I mean, certainly this should contribute to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Lisa Hajjar, we’re going to certainly link to your piece. Lisa Hajjar is a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. She recently wrote the piece that we’re talking about today on Omar Suleiman, called “Omar Suleiman, the CIA’s Man in Cairo and Egypt’s Torturer-in-Chief.”

When we come back from break, we’re going to go to Cairo to Sharif Abdel Kouddous and Anjali Kamat of Democracy Now! We’re getting this news, that President Mubarak is in Sharm el-Sheikh. And the networks, various ones, are reporting there will be a, quote, “important statement soon from the office of Egypt’s president,” that according to state TV. Tell your friends to tune in to your local radio station, television, the networks, Free Speech TV, Link TV, and online at democracynow.org. As we have these conversations, we are showing the live images on the ground of the most significant day of protest in Egypt’s history. Millions have taken to the streets in strike and rally, from Suez to Cairo.

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