Behind a Senator’s Indictments, a Foreign Spy Service Works Washington

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The charges against Senator Robert Menendez and his wife highlight how Egypt’s powerful intelligence agency wields influence.

Senator Robert Menendez, in a dark suit and blue tie, and his wife, Nadine, in a white blouse, emerge from their black car in front of the federal courthouse in Manhattan.
A federal indictment charged Senator Robert Menendez and his wife, Nadine, with conspiring to act as agents of the Egyptian government.Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Mark MazzettiVivian Yee

“What else can the love of my life do for you?” asked Nadine Arslanian, the girlfriend of Senator Robert Menendez.

She posed the question at a cozy dinner at a steakhouse in May 2019 attended by Gen. Ahmed Helmy, Egypt’s top spy in Washington. The discussion was revealed in a federal indictment on Thursday.

As General Helmy would come to find out, even if Ms. Arslanian and her soon-to-be husband were not always able to deliver what Egypt wanted, they at least seemed to try very hard.

The indictment charged Mr. Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and his now wife with conspiring to act as agents of the Egyptian government. The document, in addition to another indictment made public last month, paint an unseemly picture of how the couple advanced Egyptian interests on numerous fronts.

They tried to head off potential cuts to the more than $1 billion in aid that the United States sends to Cairo each year. They gave Egyptian officials internal information about staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. And they pushed the U.S. secretary of state to help block a dam project on the Nile River that Egypt’s government vigorously opposed.

In return, prosecutors say, the Menendezes received hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold bars, cash and other bribes.

The fact that the couple was talking directly to General Helmy and his boss, Gen. Abbas Kamel, the chief of Egypt’s powerful General Intelligence Service, is a measure of how important Mr. Menendez was to the highest levels of the Egyptian government and how central the country’s spies have become to its interests.

Neither General Helmy nor General Kamel are named in the indictments, and their roles have not been previously reported. General Helmy is identified in the indictment only as “Egyptian Official-3” and General Kamel as “Egyptian Official-5.” But three U.S. officials have confirmed their names.

The roles of the two Egyptian spies in trying to influence U.S. policy also provide more evidence to suggest that the information-passing and bribe-paying could be part of an espionage operation centered on Mr. Menendez, and not just another tactic to wield influence in Washington.

The spies in Washington also reflect a deliberate strategy by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt to lean on those he trusts most — the intelligence cadres led by General Kamel — who form part of the military and intelligence apparatus that helped Mr. el-Sisi seize power in 2013 and that analysts say is now the primary instrument of his rule.

In Cairo, General Intelligence handles virtually all key foreign policy matters and has shunted aside the once powerful Foreign Ministry. General Intelligence also has domestic responsibilities such as keeping Parliament in line and micromanaging the news media.

Along with Egypt’s military, General Intelligence has become one of the country’s biggest economic players and gobbles up what scholars have determined is a huge portion of Egypt’s economy. The intelligence agency often uses civilian frontmen to cloak their companies’ true ownership.

Details in the two Menendez indictments reveal how central the couple was to the efforts of Egyptian intelligence officials.

In one instance, in May 2019, General Helmy pressed Mr. Menendez to intervene with his Senate colleagues who were holding up military aid to Egypt because of the government’s unwillingness to properly compensate an American who was injured in an Egyptian airstrike in 2015.

Days after meeting with Mr. Menendez, General Helmy sent an encrypted text in Arabic to Wael Hana, an Egyptian-American businessman who had introduced the couple to several Egyptian officials and has also been charged by prosecutors. The general wrote that if the senator helped resolve the matter, “he will sit very comfortably.”

“Orders, consider it done,” Mr. Hana replied, according to the indictment.

In another message Mr. Hana sent to General Helmy, he referred to Mr. Menendez as “our man.”

Mr. Hana and the Menendezes have pleaded not guilty in the case. The Egyptian government’s foreign press center and the foreign ministry spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Image

By the time Egyptian officials began their outreach to Mr. Menendez, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt had already consolidated power in Washington into the hands of the powerful General Intelligence Service.Credit…Pool photo by Lewis Joly

The indictments detail how the two spies met the Menendezes through Mr. Hana, who is accused of drawing on his halal certification company to shower the couple with bribes while passing sensitive information to the Egyptians. The company had the means to pay, the indictment says, because the Egyptian government had abruptly awarded it a multimillion-dollar monopoly soon after Mr. Hana met Mr. Menendez.

The connection might seem baffling to Americans: Egypt’s intelligence chief and an obscure company ensuring that exported meat, milk and vitamins are religiously permissible for Muslims to eat. But in Egypt, where official power and profit have become inseparable, a lucrative deal for a well-connected businessman — one that would also enrich the security establishment — was a common way for the state to do business.

Gaining the cooperation of Mr. Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would have been a bonus, analysts said. It is unclear whether Mr. Hana won the halal monopoly from Egypt because of his ties to the Menendezes, though it appeared to have been completed after he introduced Egyptian officials to the senator.

Egyptian officials have long made the case that they are an essential partner to the United States on a range of issues such as counterterrorism and being a liaison in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which erupted this weekend after Hamas launched its most audacious assault on Israel, killing 1,200 Israelis and taking 150 hostages.

By the time Egyptian officials began their outreach to the senator, Mr. el-Sisi had consolidated power in Washington into the hands of the powerful General Intelligence Service.

Gen. Ashraf el-Tarabani, the top intelligence official working out of Egypt’s Embassy in Washington during the mid-2010s, had eclipsed the ambassador as the most influential official advancing the country’s interests in the United States.

The gregarious, chain-smoking general held regular meetings with lawmakers and White House officials. He openly disparaged the ambassador, who nominally led the embassy, as ineffectual.

General Intelligence even hired its own lobbyists in Washington, Cassidy and Associates. The firm was separate from another team of lobbyists working for the ambassador and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to interviews with people familiar with the contract and foreign agents’ registration records.

The lobbyists worked Capitol Hill and hosted dinners at Cafe Milano in Georgetown, a favorite fishbowl of Washington’s political elite, to buff the Egyptian government’s image.

Their chief goal was to persuade lawmakers to lift restrictions imposed on the $1.3 billion in military aid that flowed from Washington to Cairo each year.

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The Menendezes tried to head off potential cuts to the more than $1 billion in aid that the United States sends to Egypt each year.Credit…Amir Makar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

General Helmy eventually took over from General Tarabani as the top intelligence official in Washington, assuming control of the lobbying contract and meeting frequently with the Menendezes.

The indictments show that General Helmy thought the senator could make a great deal and that he kept close tabs on him. In September 2019, months after the steakhouse dinner, the general sent a nervous text message to Mr. Hana saying he had heard secondhand that Mr. Menendez had put a hold on “a billion $ of usaid to Egypt before the recess!!!!”

“Is this true?” he asked.

Mr. Hana said he would find out. After a flurry of messages to Ms. Menendez and others, he wrote back to the general minutes later, assuring him it was not true.

In March 2020, Ms. Menendez dashed off a text message to General Helmy.

“Anytime you need anything you have my number and we will make everything happen,” she wrote, according to the indictment unsealed last month.

In June 2021, General Kamel flew to Washington to meet with senators who had pressed Egypt’s government on human rights. A day before the meeting, he sat down with Mr. Menendez and his wife at a hotel. In the indictment made public on Thursday, the couple gave General Kamel a briefing about what questions the senators were likely to ask him.

Days later, according to the second indictment, Mr. Hana bought 22 one-ounce gold bars, valued at the time at approximately $1,800 each. Two of the gold bars were discovered during an F.B.I. search of the Menendez home. In fall 2021, the Menendezes flew to Egypt. The indictment included a photograph of the couple at a private dinner at General Kamel’s home, beaming next to their host.

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The Menendezes spoke directly to Gen. Abbas Kamel, the chief of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service.Credit…Khaled Elfiqi/Epa-Efe

Concentrating authority under General Kamel has allowed Mr. el-Sisi a nearly impregnable degree of control.

Egyptian journalists and analysts say General Intelligence handpicks members of Parliament to ensure it is friendly to Mr. el-Sisi and to manage political parties. General Kamel, described by people who have met him as a calm man with an affable sense of humor, meets with opposition leaders and activists when necessary.

General Intelligence also instructs government aligned-presenters on Egyptian TV news on what to emphasize. The agency openly owns much of the media, including news outlets and hit TV shows and movies produced by intelligence-owned companies.

General Kamel was Mr. el-Sisi’s chief of staff as the president ascended from general to the head of military intelligence to defense minister. Leaked audio recordings in 2015 paint General Kamel as an unwavering loyalist who pulled strings in the whisper campaign that paved the way for Mr. el-Sisi’s takeover in 2013 and elevated his boss’s image in the media.

Last year, General Intelligence’s vast business holdings became public after the Egyptian Parliament passed a law allowing the spy service to establish, hold shares and take board seats in private companies. The agency now owns some companies outright, including East Gas, a key player in the multibillion-dollar deal that brings natural gas to Egypt from Israel.

The profits never show up in the government budget. Instead they go into slush funds that experts say are used to reward loyalists, including funding “a vast patronage network to maintain the cohesion of the ruling coalition,” said Maged Mandour, an Egyptian political analyst.

It is an insurance policy for a leadership hemorrhaging support among ordinary Egyptians, who are struggling to stay afloat during the country’s biggest economic crisis in decades.

In other cases, the companies are ostensibly controlled by private businessmen who once worked for the military or the intelligence establishment or are otherwise linked to them, experts say.

Often, they go from rags — or, at least, disrepute — to riches seemingly overnight, like Mr. Hana.

Before Egypt granted him the halal monopoly, Mr. Hana’s business record showed little but bad checks, unpaid bills and legal troubles. A Christian, he had no prior experience with the industry.

But he appeared to have useful connections in Egypt. In 2018, he began introducing the Menendezes to several officials, according to the indictments. By mid-2019, according to federal prosecutors, he won the halal monopoly.

Reporting from Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian news outlet, showed that Mr. Hana’s company, IS EG Halal, worked in tandem with another company linked to the country’s security apparatus.

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After winning the monopoly, Mr. Hana promptly raised the price of halal certification, in some cases more than tenfold, causing an uproar among exporting countries.

William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting from New York, and Adam Goldman and Julian E. Barnes from Washington.

Mark Mazzetti is a Washington investigative correspondent, and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He is the author of “The Way of the Knife: the C.I.A, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth.”  More about Mark Mazzetti

Vivian Yee is the Cairo bureau chief, covering politics, society and culture in the Middle East and North Africa. She was previously based in Beirut, Lebanon, and in New York, where she wrote about New York City, New York politics and immigration. More about Vivian Yee

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