Feb. 1, 2011 — -- The intelligence chief tapped by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak as his vice president and potential successor aided the U.S. with its rendition program, intelligence experts told ABC News, and oversaw the torture of an Al Qaeda suspect whose information helped justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
In the midst of Egypt's protests, Omar Suleiman went on television Monday to say that President Mubarak had ordered him to launch reforms and begin talking to opposition parties. But for the U.S., the CIA, Israel, and Egypt's Islamist opposition, 74-year-old Suleiman, who has been the head of Egyptian intelligence since 1993, represents a continuation of the policies of the old regime.
"Mubarak and Suleiman are the same person," said Emile Nakhleh, a former top Middle East analyst for the CIA. "They are not two different people in terms of ideology and reform."
Ron Suskind, author of the book The One Percent Doctrine, called Suleiman the "hit man" for the Mubarak regime. He told ABC News that when the CIA asked Suleiman for a DNA sample from a relative of Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Suleiman offered the man's whole arm instead.
"He's a charitable man, friendly," said Suskind. "He tortures only people that he doesn't know."
Suskind said Suleiman "was our point man in Egypt for many years. Everything went through Omar. We never had to talk to anyone else. When we wanted someone to be tortured, we'd send him to Egypt to have them tortured. We wanted to get intelligence and we didn't need it to be stuff that could be doublechecked."
"As chief of the Mukhabarat, or General Intelligence Directorate," said John Sifton, who authored the 2007 Human Rights Watch report on torture conducted by Egypt's other intelligence agency, SSI, Suleiman oversaw joint intelligence operations with the CIA and other Arab countries "which featured illegal renditions and tortures of dozens of detainees."
As revealed in U.S. cables released by WikiLeaks, Suleiman has cooperated closely with the U.S. and with Israel in trying to undercut Hamas, the Islamist party in the Palestinian territories. The Mubarak regime views Hamas, which has its roots in Egypt's own Islamist opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, as a threat.
"Our intelligence collaboration with Omar Soliman," says a 2006 U.S. State Department memo, using an alternate spelling of his name, "is now probably the most successful element of the [U.S.-Egypt] relationship." During a 2009 meeting with U.S. military officials, Suleiman said his "overarching regional goal was combating radicalism, especially in Gaza, Iran and Sudan," according to another WikiLeaks cable.
Other U.S. cables describe paranoia within the Mubarak regime, call it a dictatorship, say "torture and police brutality are widespread" -- and that six years ago, Suleiman was already seen as likely to become vice president.
According to British journalist Stephen Grey, author of "Ghost Plane," a book about the CIA's rendition program, Suleiman agreed in 1995 to let the U.S. secretly transfer suspects to Egypt for questioning. Under "extraordinary rendition," terror suspects can be taken to third countries and interrogated without oversight by the U.S. criminal justice system.
Though some suspects of other nationalities were sent to Egypt, say former senior intelligence officials, most suspects rendered were Egyptian. Egyptians who were interrogated under the program include Abu Omar, a cleric kidnapped by the CIA in Milan in 2003, and a brother of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The CIA thought it had killed Zawahiri in a bombing strike in 2002 and believed it had possession of his head. In order to get confirmation the agency needed genetic material from Zawahiri's brother, then a prisoner in Eypt.
According to Suskind, "Suleiman said, 'It's no problem. We'll just cut the brother's arm off and send it to you.' " Suskind said a CIA agent told Suleiman that a vial of blood would suffice.
Prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, al Qaeda commander Ibn al Sheikh al-Libi was transferred to Egypt for interrogation. According to a U.S. Senate report, al-Libi was beaten and locked in a cage as Egyptian officials attempted to get him to confirm a connection between Al Qaeda and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Al Libi told his interrogators, according to the report, that Hussein was supplying Al Qaeda with chemical weapons. He later recanted.
Sifton notes that the intelligence gained by the Mukhabarat via torture was often specious. Said Sifton, "On numerous occasions their intelligence was riddled with utter falsehoods and fabrications."
Sifton said that most of the torture of Egyptian citizens was conducted by the SSI and the local police, and that most of the protestors in the street who are objecting to Suleiman as a leader see him "as a regime hack, and close to the Israelis to boot."
"But insofar as his role in rendition to torture offers a hint of how he does business," said Sifton, "Egyptians are right to be wary of him. … He's a creature of the Mubarak regime, an entity that maintained its power over three decades through terror and torture."
Nakhleh said many officials in Washington were stunned at Mubarak's choice of Suleiman, and called it a "dead-end appointment. . . . He is not the right person to conduct negotiations with the opposition."