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Sanctions likely won't hurt U.S.-Sudan intel ties

President Bush’s decision to extend and expand sanctions against Sudan raises the question: will the U.S. continue to cooperate with Sudan on intelligence and counter-terrorism issues? The answer, apparently, is yes. NBC's Robert Windrem reports.

President Bush’s decision to extend and expand sanctions against Sudan raises the question: will the U.S. continue to cooperate with Sudan on intelligence and counterterrorism issues?

The answer, apparently, is yes.

According to current and former U.S. intelligence officials — and Ann Curry's interview with Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir — the U.S. cooperation has been deep and extensive since the al-Qaida attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and “separate and apart” from U.S. concern over genocide in Darfur.

According to one former high-ranking intelligence official, the cooperation consists of three basic areas of mutual interest:

  • Tracking the remnants of al-Qaida left behind when Bin Laden departed for Afghanistan in 1996;
  • Tracking Sudanese al-Qaida members who live and operate outside Sudan; and
  • Monitoring al-Qaida members who transit Sudan, particularly those on their way to Iraq from North Africa and Europe. (The route goes from Europe and Africa to Khartoum and then on to Damascus and Iraq.)

In return, the former official said the U.S. had helped Sudan “build its intelligence capacity,” that is, provided them with material and training, if not money, to beef up their counterterrorism operations.

In his March 19 interview with Curry, al-Bashir confirmed the relationship without detailing it:

Ann Curry: “Is there a continuing relationship in cooperating and sharing intelligence?”Omar al-Bashir: “Yes, there is cooperation with those bodies, the institutions within the framework of fighting terrorism.”Curry: “How do you help the United States in its need to gain intelligence in the war in terror?”al-Bashir: “We collaborate — from our perspective we are against terrorism.”

Another Sudanese official told NBC News at the time that the cooperation was “deep and productive.”

A spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency Tuesday declined comment on whether the relationship will continue, saying “we don’t comment on relations with other nation’s intelligence services,” but the former intelligence official said the United States is unlikely to drop cooperation.

That cooperation was on the agenda of several meetings between U.S. and Sudanese officials, like last year's visit by Condoleezza Rice to Sudan, said the former intelligence official, who called the relationship “problematic.” 

Typical of the cooperation was a meeting the Sudanese arranged in 2002 with al-Qaida scientists living in the country.  In his book, “At the Center of the Storm,” Tenet describes how he sent the head of the agency’s WMD division, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, to “Africa” to meet with the American-trained scientists. The CIA suspected the two, a physicist and agronomist, of working with al-Qaida on weapons of mass destruction.  A former U.S. intelligence official says the country was Sudan.

The scientists, Muhammed Bayazid, and Mubarak al–Duri, were trained at the University of Arizona.  Bayazid, a Syrian, and al-Duri, an Iraqi, had then relocated in Sudan. 

Mowatt-Larssen thought he might able to “flip” them, persuade them to work with the United States or at least understand the immorality of killing innocents.  So Tenet sent him to Khartoum where Sudanese intelligence arranged a meeting.  Tenet quotes the Sudanese intelligence officer who agreed to host the meeting as saying, "Cooperation on such a question is sensible to preserve civilization as we both know it … for this, I will agree to your request.”

The two scientists not only weren’t interested in changing sides, they rationalized their work with al-Qaida, as one put it, “I think it is legitimate to kill millions of you because of how many of us you have killed.” According to the most recent intelligence, al-Duri has returned to Iraq and Bayazid remains in Sudan.

Roger Cressey, deputy director for counter-terrorism at the National Security Council under Presidents Clinton and Bush says the two countries had a cool relationship with Sudan prior to 9/11, but as with other nations, the terrorist attacks changed everything.

“After the U.S. bombed the suspected CBW plant in Khartoum in August 1998, as part of the response to the East Africa embassy bombings, cooperation between the two countries ceased.” Said Cressey, now an NBC News analyst.

NBC News has also learned the intelligence community has been helping on identifying targets for new sanctions, on who to put on the list, perhaps using its contacts with Sudanese intelligence to do so.