The recent indictment of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) reads like the script of a B crime movie: A politician, three New Jersey businessmen, a shady trucking business, and envelopes and a safe deposit box stuffed with cash and gold bars. But the most important thru-line in the narrative isn’t the criminal charges. Rather, it is the national security threat raised by the espionage and counterintelligence concerns which run throughout the 39-page document. In sum, the government of Egypt–with whom the United States has an ostensible “critical defense partnership”–appears to have recruited the powerful Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The indictment explicitly lists five ways Menendez has already compromised U.S. national security, and implicitly reveals one ongoing threat Menendez poses as long as he continues to hold his current position.
1. Disclosing the United States’ Staffing Blueprint in its Egyptian Embassy
According to the indictment, on May 6, 2018, Menendez requested that the State Department provide him with non-public information regarding the number of people serving at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and their nationality. Upon receiving this information, Menendez texted that information to his then-girlfriend (now wife), Nadine Menendez, who forwarded it to an Egyptian businessman, Wael Hana, who in turn forwarded it to Egyptian officials. Notably, the senator requested this information from the State Department after having met with Nadine Menendez and Hana earlier that day.
Such tasking by the Egyptians would be consistent with classic modus operandi in a recruitment operation. One requests a seemingly innocuous document, that once is provided, gets their hooks into an agent-candidate. Indeed, the chronology that follows in the indictment indicates the senator had become compromised and increasing demands were then placed on him by the Egyptian officials and intermediaries.
Although the precise staffing numbers of a foreign embassy are not classified, they are considered sensitive because they can potentially be used to determine a foreign intelligence presence in that country. Foreign embassies are a primary focus for a domestic counterintelligence service. In addition, understanding the number of locals employed at the embassy offers opportunities for a domestic counterintelligence service to recruit those individuals to be their “eyes and ears” inside the embassy – even just to spot and assess potential targets who may be vulnerable.
2. Providing Advance Information on U.S. Military Aid
Because Menendez serves as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had the ability to place “holds” on pending military financing and sales, or to release those holds. That said, the direct negotiation of such financing and sales is an executive branch function, conducted by the State Department as the lead agency. The State Department reviews and approves this type of aid, based on certifications that a receiving country has met particular criteria – in the case of Egypt, this involved demonstrating commitments to human rights and democracy. Prior to the events described in the indictment, the United States had withheld or cancelled aid to Egypt due to concerns and objections regarding Egypt’s performance on this front.
In May 2018, Menendez provided – again using Nadine as an intermediary – non-public information to Egyptian officials regarding the release of military aid to Egypt. Menendez also personally met with Egyptian government and military officials in July 2018 in which he received briefing materials regarding Egypt’s foreign policy goals, and subsequently communicated that he would be approving their requests (lifting the holds) via his then-girlfriend. In so doing, Menendez apparently surreptitiously undermined the State Department’s leverage and negotiating power with the Egyptian government to the material benefit of Egypt. This was especially duplicitous since a few months earlier, Menendez raised the issue of human rights and democracy in Egypt in a bipartisan letter with senate colleagues to the State Department (which his office publicly released). Meanwhile, his secret backdoor assurances told Cairo they would be getting the military sales they wanted.
3. Ghostwriting a Letter Requesting U.S. Military Aid from the Government of Egypt
Also in May 2018, Nadine conveyed to Menendez a request from Egyptian government officials seeking his help in drafting a letter to lobby other senators to support providing Egypt with military aid. Menendez acquiesced, secretly writing a letter purporting to be from the Government of Egypt. In so doing, Menendez used his knowledge of his colleagues’ beliefs and concerns – ones that they no doubt would have shared or communicated with him on the understanding that they would not be shared with or used to directly benefit a foreign government – let alone to allow Egypt to present its case in a way that specifically addressed those concerns. In short, Menendez apparently used his insider knowledge to dupe his own colleagues (and by extension, the U.S. government) into believing that Egypt had, independently, considered the issues relevant to the U.S. Senate in determining whether to release military aid. (This episode has echoes of Paul Manafort, who in 2017 was caught by prosecutors ghost-writing an op-ed with an individual tied to Russian intelligence, Konstantin Kilimnik.). More broadly, these are additional signs of a successful foreign intelligence service’s covert influence operation.
4. Providing a Heads-Up on Questions U.S. Senators Intended to Ask of Egyptian Officials
In June 2021, Nadine arranged a meeting between Menendez and a senior Egyptian intelligence official in a hotel. Menendez provided the intelligence official with a copy of a news article reporting on questions that his colleagues in the Senate would be asking the official at a meeting the next day, about a human rights issue. A Twitter thread by reporter Amy Hawthorne links the date of the meeting with a visit by Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel, who was visiting the United States and scheduled to meet with U.S. senators to answer questions regarding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Specifically, reporting at that time indicated that senators intended to question the intelligence chief regarding reports that the Saudi plane carrying Khashoggi’s assassins stopped in Cairo to pick up drugs used in his murder.
Although the report of the forthcoming line of questioning was in the U.S. media, Egypt may not have been aware of it or trusted its reliability. In proactively providing the news article to the intelligence official prior to their private meeting, Menendez would have assisted Egypt in preparing for such questions. If, indeed, the official in question was Egypt’s chief and the questioning was regarding the Khashoggi murder, Menendez’s advance warning would have been helping Egypt come up with a potential alternate or cover story regarding the Cairo stopover, undermining his colleagues’ fact-finding efforts on behalf of the United States. In fact, the indictment quotes Nadine following up with another Egyptian official, stating, “I just thought it would be better to know ahead of time what is being talked about and this way you can prepare your rebuttals.” What is particularly notable is that Menendez has championed himself a defender of democracy and human rights and had previously spoken about the need for Saudi Arabia’s leadership to suffer consequences for Khashoggi’s murder; yet, in this case, he apparently protected the Egyptians for any role they may have played in the murder of the U.S. resident and journalist.
5. The Ongoing National Security Threat Posed by Menendez in His Current Role
It is possible that the events laid out in the indictment represent the full breadth of interactions between Menendez and the Egyptian government. However, there is the distinct possibility that it is not, and that Egypt is in possession of other communications or actions taken by Menendez that the FBI has not yet uncovered or that has not been made public. The indictment notes that many of the meetings Menendez undertook with Egyptian officials took place without either his staff or other committee members being present. As a result, it is impossible to know how much leverage Egypt continues to have over Menendez, especially given that he is under criminal indictment and their release of any such information could worsen Menendez’s liability and his ability to raise funds for his defense. Under all these circumstances, Menendez is not suitable to continue to hold a position of public trust, given the number and nature of issues handled by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate itself related to Egypt’s direct and indirect interests.
6. The Aftermath
Ordinarily in such spy scandals, there are repercussions when one side is caught, even amongst strategic partners. As such, do we expect that the Biden administration will sanction Egypt for running such an espionage operation against a powerful member of Congress? For example, will the United States declare persona non-grata (PNG) any officials from the Egyptian embassy in Washington? Such PNGs can be done quietly, but failure to do anything here will be seen as a sign of weakness. Finally, given Menendez’s historic antipathy for weapons sales to Turkey, as well as his hawkish stance on Iran, will there be any other foreign policy effects of this scandal? We will be watching this space.