By Ken Silverstein, Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON, June 17, 2005 — A decision by the CIA to fly Sudan’s intelligence chief to Washington for secret meetings aimed at cementing cooperation against terrorism triggered such intense opposition within the Bush administration that some officials suggested arresting him here, sources said.
The internal debate over the April visit by Maj. Gen. Salah Abdallah Gosh, whose government Washington accuses of committing genocide in the Darfur region, goes to the heart of a broader dispute about the CIA’s alliances with foreign intelligence services.
Critics say that when the U.S. works with controversial countries such as Sudan, it suggests that it isn’t serious about promoting democracy and human rights. Many experts on intelligence matters, however, say that Washington has no choice but to rely on some governments with questionable human rights records to help fight its war against terrorism.
Gosh’s agency has allowed the CIA to question Al Qaeda suspects living in Sudan and detained foreign militants moving through the country on their way to joining Iraqi insurgents, U.S. and Sudanese officials have said. The trip was intended to help strengthen the relationship.
With plans for the visit on the verge of collapse, two people familiar with the situation said, a compromise was struck with opponents of the visit in the State and Justice departments. Gosh was allowed to come, but a scheduled meeting with CIA Director Porter J. Goss was canceled.
The CIA, Justice Department, State Department and Sudanese government declined to comment about the dispute on the record because of the sensitivity of the relationship.
But Ted Dagne, a Sudan specialist with the Congressional Research Service, said State Department officials believed Gosh’s trip would "send a political signal to the [Sudanese] government that Darfur would not prevent Sudan from winning support in Washington."
The disclosure of Gosh’s visit, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, also angered some members of Congress.
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus criticized the visit during a meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday.
Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.) told a State Department official who was testifying on Capitol Hill last month that bringing Gosh "to visit Washington at this time is tantamount to inviting the head of the Nazi SS at the height of the Holocaust."
A senior U.S. official, who commented officially but declined to be named, defended the visit. "Mr. Gosh has strategic knowledge and information about a critical region in the war on terror. The information he has is of substantial value to law enforcement, the intelligence community and the U.S. government as a whole, and this relationship will be of both current and future value."
Gosh’s visit, the official added, did not mean that Sudan would receive "a free pass on critical policy issues" such as Darfur.
Partnerships with foreign governments, known as liaison relationships, are "an indispensable part of CIA’s counterterrorism strategy," former agency Director George J. Tenet told the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks last year.
Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, who spent 33 years at the CIA and founded its counterterrorism center, said dealing with controversial regimes is sometimes unavoidable.
"You have no choice but to work with and recruit the bad guys because the Mother Teresas of the world don’t have the information you need," he said.
However, others say the U.S. often ends up protecting extremely repressive regimes, including some in the Mideast.
"The method of governing in the Middle East is to force your enemies to keep their heads down," said Bob Baer, a former CIA officer. Intelligence agencies there "let people know that if they plan anything against the regime, they’re going to die."
The CIA inevitably becomes committed to protecting elites that offer to collaborate on intelligence, he said.
The CIA’s relationship with Sudan is especially controversial because of the government’s previous ties to Islamic radicals. Osama bin Laden lived in Khartoum, the country’s capital, from 1991 to 1996, before he departed for Afghanistan.
In 1993, the Clinton administration put Sudan on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, and the Bush administration has kept it there.
The U.S. continues to harshly criticize Sudan for human rights violations. In September, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell accused Sudan of committing genocide in Darfur. President Bush reiterated that charge this month. Yet cooperation between the CIA and the Mukhabarat, Sudan’s intelligence agency, has steadily grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Sudan’s overall cooperation and information sharing improved markedly and produced significant progress in combating terrorist activity," the State Department said this year in a report on global terrorism.
CIA and Mukhabarat officials have met regularly over the last few years, but Gosh had been seeking an invitation to Washington in recognition of his government’s efforts, sources told The Times. The CIA, hoping to seal the partnership, extended the invitation.
"The agency’s view was that the Sudanese are helping us on terrorism and it was proud to bring him over," said a government source with knowledge of Gosh’s visit. "They didn’t care about the political implications."
But an internal debate erupted after word of the invitation spread to other government agencies. Their concern stemmed in part from a 2004 letter that 11 members of Congress sent to Bush, which accused Gosh of being a chief architect of the violence in Darfur.
The letter said Sudan had engaged in a "scorched-earth policy against innocent civilians in Darfur." It identified 21 Sudanese government, military and militia leaders as responsible and called on the administration to freeze their assets and ban them from coming to the U.S. Gosh was No. 2 on the list.
Sudan’s government has rejected accusations of genocide. It says the clashes in Darfur are part of long-standing conflicts between farmers and nomadic tribes that are fueled by disputes over water, land and other resources. It denies that senior officials such as Gosh have ordered attacks on civilians, which it blames on militias operating largely beyond its control.
Two senior U.S. officials told The Times that they have no direct evidence that Gosh has directed military operations in Darfur.
Several sources, including a State Department official, said the question of the propriety of the visit provoked sharp divisions at that agency.
Similar opposition emerged at the Justice Department, where officials discussed arresting Gosh, according to two sources. One person said Gosh learned of the discussions during his meetings with CIA officials.
Despite the internal dissension, CIA chief Goss remained committed to the trip. However, sources said, he agreed to scratch his meeting with the Sudanese official.
Gosh arrived here aboard a CIA jet and met with other senior agency officials April 20 and 21. The CIA canceled the meeting with Goss on the second day, saying that the director was unavailable because he needed to attend John D. Negroponte’s swearing-in to the position of director of national intelligence, a source said.
Gosh returned to Sudan on April 22, again traveling in a jet provided by the CIA.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who wrote to the administration this month protesting Gosh’s visit, said the CIA should not have brought him to Washington and could have arranged to meet him in Sudan or a neighboring country.
"I understand that in the intelligence business you have to deal with unsavory figures, but this sends very bad signals," he said. "Unless he’s providing information that’s going to save the Western world, it’s hard to see how you can justify this."
Payne was equally harsh.
"How can the administration say that genocide is occurring in Darfur and then bring Gosh over here?" he said. "It was a dastardly and unconscionable act."
Payne, of New Jersey, said he asked about Gosh’s visit in the meeting with Rice. He said she defended the visit, saying that "in situations of high stakes, there has to be a balancing and that you sometimes need to do things that you wouldn’t under normal circumstances."
David Shinn, director of East African affairs at the State Department from 1993 to 1996, said the Bush administration’s engagement with the Sudanese government had produced important gains.
In January, Muslim government forces in the north and Christian and animist rebels in the south agreed to end a two-decade civil war in a deal brokered by the U.S. The peace agreement will take effect next month, when a national unity government is to be formed.
"Counterterrorism cooperation and ending the war with the south are pretty big deals," said Shinn, who also worked at the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum. "Engagement with Sudan is appropriate, and so is putting pressure on the government in Darfur. The two are not mutually exclusive."
Shinn also said that some U.S. critics of engagement had been largely uncritical of human rights violations by southern rebels during the civil war.
"A lot of people blame the government for all of the problems there," he said. "There are bad guys on the other side, too."