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The Senator Menendez case raises major questions for US intelligence

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The indictment unveiled on Friday against Sen. Robert Menendez marks another chapter in a series of troubling allegations that have dogged the New Jersey Democrat for years, marking the second time in a decade that he has faced corruption charges. The question the indictment leaves unanswered is, did the Egyptian government target an influential United States senator to do its bidding on Capitol Hill?

Menendez and his wife, Nadine, are charged along with three businessmen in a complicated plot to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes including cash, gold bars, a Mercedes convertible, even mortgage payments. According to the indictment, Menendez accepted these payoffs in return for using his position as a United States senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee because he agreed to use “his influence and power and breach his official duty in ways that benefited the Government of Egypt.”

It is alleged that Menendez used his political position to attempt to break a State Department “hold” on US aid to Egypt, push for the delivery of ammunition and weapons systems to the Egyptian military, and passed sensitive information about American and Egyptian personnel assigned to the US Embassy in Cairo. It should be noted that some of these actions are things that the senator could have done legally if they were not allegedly in return for cash and gold.

“The excesses of these prosecutors is apparent,” Menendez said in a statement on Friday. “They have misrepresented the normal work of a Congressional office. On top of that, not content with making false claims against me, they have attacked my wife for the longstanding friendships she had before she and I even met.”

The Egyptian government has not commented on the indictment and Menendez and his wife, as well as the others charged, have strongly denied the charges.

Following a mistrial on previous corruption charges in 2017, Menendez was acquitted on several charges in 2018 with the Department of Justice dropping those that remained.

On the latest allegations, as someone who worked at the FBI, in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Bureau, I am struck by the elephant that seems to be missing from the room: Nothing in the indictment describes what investigators know, if anything, about the role of Egyptian officials and whether they had direction or knowledge over the bribery scheme. Why is this important? Because the possible subtext of this story is that Cairo may have used agents in the US to try and recruit the top elected legislative official with influence over foreign policy to be its puppet. Yes, when you say it out loud it is shocking.

The use of foreign nationals, expats, dual citizens, or even Americans, who have a loyalty to a foreign country is a proven tactic in the spy game. Does Egypt, a country that has received billions in US aid, conduct sophisticated intelligence operations on US soil?

Another recent case suggests they might. In January of 2022, Pierre Girgis, an Egyptian-American banker, based in New York was charged by federal prosecutors who say he “acted in the United States as an agent of the Arab Republic of Egypt.” The indictment charged that Girgis “operated at the direction and control of multiple employees of the Egyptian government in an effort to further in the United States the interests of the Egyptian Government.” It alleged that Girgis cultivated close relationships with members of US law enforcement including members of the NYPD in an effort to gather information on opponents of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the United States.

After the indictment was unsealed, Girgis pleaded not guilty and was released on his own recognizance. The case is awaiting trial.

The Egyptian government has been known to arrest, imprison, even torture those it considers enemies of the regime. Indeed, the very reason the US State Department had put holds on some aid to Egypt, the same holds Menendez was asked to break, was to press Egypt on human rights reforms relating to crackdowns on dissent. While Girgis has been charged with being an unregistered agent of Egypt, Wael Hana, the businessman charged with bribing Menendez to advance Egyptian interests, has not. Hana and two other businessmen are charged with bribery.

Wael Hana, who has pleaded not guilty, is described in the indictment as being “originally from Egypt” and having “maintained close connections with Egyptian officials.” It was Hana, investigators say, who was friends with Nadine Arslanian “for many years before she began dating Robert Menendez,” whom she eventually married. The indictment charges that after Nadine began a romantic relationship with Menendez, she and Hana spent years working “to introduce Egyptian intelligence and military officials to Menendez.” The indictment details how Nadine Menendez acted as the go-between who passed messages and picked up bribes.

This is where we come to another uncomfortable question, but one a trained intelligence officer would have to at least consider: Did Wael Hana have anything to do with his old friend Nadine Arslanian entering into a romantic relationship with the senator and marrying him?

Among the things an intelligence officer considers in planning the targeting of an asset is finding someone who has the access they need but also vulnerabilities they can compromise. It was widely publicized that Menendez had been the target of corruption charges and a senate ethics probe involving allegations of accepting free gifts, trips, and rides on private planes in return for using his influence to aid Dr. Salomon Melgen who was convicted on separate health care fraud charges in 2017. The criminal case against Menendez resulted in a hung jury and prosecutors did not pursue a second trial but the Senate Ethics Committee found that Menendez violated Senate rules and multiple laws. Menendez maintained his innocence.

Another thing an intelligence officer would grapple with is the sheer boldness of such a move. Targeting a staff member working on the Foreign Relations Committee team would be a logical plan but turning the chairman into an asset would be shooting for the moon. For a long-term, United States ally, like Egypt, a country that has played critical roles over the last 50 years in US Middle East policy, targeting and recruiting the United States senator who chairs the foreign relations committee would be an extraordinarily provocative move.

How will the Menendez case and the fallout from it affect US-Egyptian relations? As prosecutors prepare for a trial, will any connections between the businessman and others tied to the Egyptian government be revealed?

These are very sensitive issues that crossover from the Justice Department into the interests of the State Department and the White House. The lines may have to be drawn very carefully between the prosecution, US diplomatic interests and whether any larger story to come has larger implications for a vital diplomatic relationship.

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