The Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said headquarters of the Egyptian State Security Investigation Service (SSIS) were sacked last week, and scandalous and incriminating files were seized by the angry mobs. In the aftermath, the new Egyptian authorities dissolved the hated agency, arresting its former head on charges of perpetrating the brutal crackdown on democracy protesters, as well as over four dozen employees who are alleged to have destroyed files. A new "National Security Force" has now been formed, and entrusted with "protecting the internal front and combating terror."
This exercise was not so much a sham as a predictable trip down a well-known path. No modern intelligence or security agency has ever been completely dismantled. Whether in the aftermath of war or peace, revolutions or elections, intelligence and security agencies are simply too valuable and too dangerous to dismantle. Their dark skills can serve a new government or regime; they have the files to track or even blackmail rulers and commoners alike, and their abilities to lie, steal, cheat and worse are too dangerous simply to unleash.
History has shown that remnants of an old regime's intelligence and security services will reliably thwart efforts at exposing their past activities. In Romania, former Securitate officials who had been incorporated into the new government worked diligently throughout the 1990s destroying files they had previously collected. The Romanian Parliament has now put most of the remaining twelve kilometers of files off-limits to researchers.
New security chiefs also typically abuse their powers in familiar ways. In South Africa, the former Stasi-trained African National Congress officials who took over that state's intelligence apparatus after the end of apartheid immediately began spying on political rivals, running guns, and using the country's organizations for personal aims.
Even long-standing democracies are never long without intelligence agencies. After World War II, there was a period of merely four months between the breakup of the wartime Office of Strategic Service and the formation of the Central Intelligence Group, the C.I.A.'s immediate predecessor.
Pride of place probably goes to the Russian Federal Security Service, which originated with Catherine the Great in the early 18th century, and was the successor to the K.G.B. Organizations and individuals moved from regime to regime with surprisingly few disruptions, and along the way, periodically monopolized various sectors of the economy such as the tobacco trade. The Bolsheviks may have hung a number of Czarist Okhrana officials, but many more low-level personnel were incorporated into the new Cheka, the immediate ancestor of the OGPU, NKVD and KGB. The Putinist regime is arguably the transformation of the old Soviet intelligence agencies into the modern Russian state.
Now Egypt has its turn. All Arab states rely on their mukhabarat [secret service] to maintain order; preserve and 'coup-proof' the regime, and to control dissent. Saddam Hussein's Iraq had over a dozen different agencies, some of which were solely designed to spy on other agencies. In Egypt, the hand of the mukhabarat was relatively light, compared to Libya, but woe to the person who fell afoul of it or was rendered there.
No one really knows how to dismantle an intelligence and security agency. Even in situations of catastrophic social change, the extent of continuity is large and dismaying; both the Americans and the Soviets incorporated Nazi spies and spymasters into their own networks and those of their newly created German client states. Other Nazis who fled found jobs with the Egyptian and Syrian security services.
Exposing the extent to which security agencies dominated authoritarian states has been fought by both former and current agents, and has produced repeated social traumas. What is to be done with agency files?
Since 1989, Germans have slowly discovered the extent to which citizens spied upon one another for the Stasi. Friends, neighbors, families, teachers, lovers were all drawn in, and cultural figures were exposed as complicit in the old regime. Rigid privacy laws have been used in other places to block out the realization that by means of all-pervasive surveillance, Communist leaders intruded into every intimate aspect of their subjects' lives.
What becomes of personnel? In Iraq, the remnants of Saddam Hussein's intelligence and security agencies formed the core of the violent insurgency against the American-led coalition. Even the US has not been immune to depredations wrought by the cinema icon of the rogue former agent. The C.I.A. has a long tradition of agents gone bad. H. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy's notorious "Plumbers" undertook political dirty tricks from within the Nixon White House. Edwin Wilson ran guns to Libya and trained its military and various terrorists, and then claimed he was really still on the agency's payroll. And Philip Agee exposed CIA agents around the world. Intelligence personnel from authoritarian and totalitarian countries have even more consistently bad records.
It is too soon to predict events in Egypt. Intelligence and security personnel are surprisingly adept at seeing which way the wind is blowing. Should there be a real democratic transformation the "new" intelligence and security services will likely keep many of the old agents and operatives, if only as a hedge or out of inertia. The Egyptian State Security Investigation Service's "City Eye," the human intelligence network of informants, street kids, taxi drivers, hotel clerks, doormen, and the like, is especially formidable; and there is no reason to think that it has or ever will be dismantled. If there is an Islamist regime, the SSIS will almost certainly maintain maximum continuity to penetrate and police Egyptian society at every level. Even Iran only hanged some members of the Shah's hated SAVAK security service and kept the rest, with newly minted Islamist credentials.
Who can argue against continuity? The helplessness and vacillation of Western powers during Egyptian resolution, the moral compromises they made with Mubarak and the SSIS in the decades before the revolution, and the chaos unleashed by the withdrawal of police and security from Egyptian cities are enough to convince even the most determined democrat about the need for intelligence and security agencies. The fact that there are no good models or tools for deep reform is another hindrance. The nostrums and management techniques of "security sector reform" seem inadequate in the face of the regime's legitimate security needs, as well as its illegitimate ones. At a minimum, reformers need to be backed up by forensic accountants and computer specialists trying to track where the money went; human resources managers bearing golden parachutes for very bad people, and a set of brass knuckles. A political decision to put aside the repressive and secretive instruments of security services, to investigate past abuses, and to establish meaningful parliamentary and judicial oversight, is still harder to imagine.
The problem of what to do with intelligence and securities agencies will only get worse. If Libya somehow manages to shake off Gaddafi, or Iran its theocratic rulers, new leaders and entire societies will be faced with uphill battles. North Korea, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, Cuba, and countless other states and non-states will sooner or later face the same issue. How the West will support them is entirely unclear.