By William Wan and Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 5, 2011; 9:13 PM
CAIRO - Hundreds of protesters stormed the headquarters of Egypt's widely feared State Security Investigations agency in Cairo on Saturday and began sifting through thousands of potentially inflammatory documents, marking another step toward dismantling the administration of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
State Security was responsible for suppressing domestic political dissent, as well as for internal counterterrorism, and had a reputation for torturing detainees. The unearthed documents could provide information for cases against senior members of Mubarak's government, from the former president on down, and could prove explosive if publicized, analysts said.
"This could be bigger than Mubarak's fall in terms of the effect it could have on the country," said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
State Security also collaborated with the United States on counterterrorism and was likely to have kept files on the rendition program under which terrorism suspects from around the world were relocated to Egypt by U.S. agents, Zarwan said.
But there were indications that some of the most sensitive documents might have been destroyed or removed, and most of the rest were taken away by prosecutors, witnesses said.
The evening attack on the facility in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City was the culmination of a wave of similar assaults over the previous 24 hours on State Security offices across the country, apparently fueled by rumors that officials had begun burning or shredding documents.
Protesters who began gathering outside the Cairo headquarters in the afternoon found their way in through a side entrance after they saw four trucks being loaded with garbage bags that appeared to be stuffed with shredded paper, witnesses said.
Once inside, they found more shredded documents and empty rooms, but also piles of files and computer hard drives, which they hauled outside and protected with a human chain.
Some documents, including one on a militant attack on a Christian church in January and another ordering phone taps on people who called in to political talk shows, were posted on Twitter before the prosecutors arrived and began removing the files under army supervision.
"There were files on everything, like schools and hospitals, and not just political dissenters but government officials as well," said a protester who gave his name as Abu Osama and said he had spent 20 years in State Security prisons for fighting with a militant group in Afghanistan.
"It's like the first day of the revolution all over again," he said.
Witnesses also said they found implements used for torture, including electric shock devices, and roamed through three levels of underground cells. Though no prisoners were found, protesters said they saw indications, such as unspoiled rice and other food, that some might have been occupying cells a few hours earlier.
On an upper floor, the protesters found a whirlpool and a gym in the luxurious quarters used by the service's officers.
"This is incredible," said another protester, Haytham Hassan, as cries of "Victory!" and "God is great!" rose from the crowds milling around the building. "We are getting inside, and we are finding the secrets that have haunted us for so many years. This feeling is better than anything that has happened so far."
The dismantling of the State Security apparatus was one of the key outstanding demands of the protest movement that has remained almost continuously in central Cairo's Tahrir Square since Mubarak's fall and has organized major demonstrations on subsequent Fridays.
It seems unlikely that the security agency will be able to survive, although what will replace it and how the new authorities manage its dispersal could prove critical, said Zarwan, the analyst.
"As an apparatus, it's done, but a lot of people worked for State Security, and it had a huge network of informants," he said. "What do you do with all those people? They'll be on the run, frightened and with their backs to the wall, and they could create a lot of mischief."
The storming of the prison, which was part of the Interior Ministry, came hours after the first tentative step toward holding members of Mubarak's government to account. The ministry's former chief, Habib al-Adly, whom many people blame for torture carried out in Egyptian prisons, appeared in a Cairo court accused of money laundering and corruption. He denied the charges.
Special correspondent Mohammed Mansour contributed to this report.