Editor’s note: In a new approach to this section, we are using two reviews of a single book to provide different, sometimes similar but also conflicting, perspectives of a fascinating memoire.
Reviewed by Norvell “Tex” DeAtkine and David T. Jones
Jack O’Connell with Vernon Loeb, King’s Counsel: A Memoir of War, Espionage, and Diplomacy in the Middle East, W.W.Norton and Company, New York, New York, 2011. ISBN 978-0-393-06334-9. 752 pp. $35.00 (hardcover.)
Probably no other work of recent vintage has been so revealing of the intricacies and imponderables of the byzantine world of Middle Eastern politics as this book. In a book written by an ex-CIA “spy” (as the author refers to himself), it is never quite clear what has been left out as a result of the CIA rules, but plenty in this book remains to provoke heated discussion. That it has not yet done so puzzles the reviewer. After all, to claim, as the author does, that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger actively encouraged the Egyptians to launch the 1973 war on the Israelis or to admit that the author provided King Hussein with U.S. intelligence that the Israelis were about to attack Egypt in 1967 –- information the King relayed to Nasser who apparently disregarded it–seems rather startling. Perhaps the Middle East, with all the recent unhappy U.S. involvement there, has simply outworn public interest.
The author is a throwback to the type of personality who transferred from the OSS to the CIA following World War II. Athletic, scholarly with a law degree from Notre Dame and with good connections in the Washington area, he typifies a generational type much less found today — someone who ditches an assured career path for an often dangerous and a much less remunerative one. This reviewer overlapped with O’Connell’s tenure at the Amman Embassy and while I seldom saw or had dealings with him, his reputation was that of the consummate professional. He was always unflappable, self-effacing and never put himself in the spotlight. Within the embassy it was assumed, with good reason, that King Hussein kept O’Connell in the decision-making process.
When this reviewer arrived in Jordan in the summer of 1970, Mr. O’Connell constituted the leadership of the embassy. The King had declared the previous ambassador as persona non grata and turmoil characterized the leadership inside the embassy and political situation outside. Palestinian gunmen controlled most of Amman, making life for U.S. embassy personnel hazardous, culminating in the murder, in front of his family, of the assistant Army Attaché. The author’s depiction of those days is accurate and immensely readable.
O’Connell first became acquainted with the King in 1958 when the Agency sent him to help the King ferret out the anti-regime plotters. Made up mostly of army officers, many from prominent families, they were to carry out an Egyptian–inspired anti-regime coup and put Jordan firmly into the pan-Arabist Abdul Nasser coalition. The King was having a difficult time providing the proof necessary to convince the people that it was indeed a plot and not just a ploy to get rid of potential political opposition. After some period of time spent fruitlessly trying to elicit confessions, the Agency sent an expert interrogator, an ex-Polish nobleman who came into the CIA during WWII, known only as “Peter.” By use of a skillfully concocted story, the interrogator broke one plotter and the whole web unraveled.
For several years after that, O’Connell was assigned to Beirut and there relates many anecdotes about the spy world at that time, with all the notable personalities — Kim Philby, Miles Copeland, Kermit Roosevelt, and Bill Eveland, a previous station chief who was said to have run Lebanon out of the Lebanese President’s office. O’Connell ruminates about the various CIA engineered coups of that era, mostly unsuccessful and concludes, “covert wars are a contradiction in terms.” The meat of this section of the book, however, is O’Connell’s philosophy on recruiting local agents, including the importance of finding a principal agent “who knows everyone in town” and the use of the polygraph to establish his reliability. It is less cloak and dagger than just common sense, human understanding, and a bit of intuition.
The main part of the book begins in 1963 when O’Connell overcame initial objections by the U.S. Ambassador to his being assigned as station chief in Amman, which begins the author’s long association with Jordan and particularly King Hussein. This association continues long after O’Connell leaves the CIA and becomes the King’s personal representative in Washington, to the extent of buying him and Princess Muna homes there.
In his generally hagiographic portrait of the King, O’Connell points to the King’s decision in 1967 to support Abdul Nasser’s threat of armed force against Israel, putting his forces under incompetent Egyptian leadership, as one of Hussein’s greatest mistakes. It led to the loss of the West Bank portion of Jordan and the influx of many thousands of Palestinian refugees. Many of the following chapters of the book are devoted to the Palestinian problem, and the King’s involvement in the futile negotiations attempting to find a settlement. O’Connell comes down hard on Israel, basically laying out the case that while Israel was willing to give up the Sinai, and deal with Syria on Golan, the West Bank contains a religious element that goes well beyond security requirements. He presents his personal insight on the many “missed opportunities” for a settlement. In his view Israeli intransigence and U.S. facilitation and support for the Israelis are the primary reason for failure.
As the author states, “For the risks the King took in his search for peace, he was betrayed by both the Israelis and Americans.” By inference it is also clear that his fellow Arabs also continually betrayed the King. A prime example of this is the notorious 1967 “Khartoum Resolution,” a secret agreement made at the Arab summit, in which the then chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Ahmad Shuqeri, announced that the Arabs had agreed on no negotiation, no recognition, and no peace with the Israelis. The Israelis have used this since as displaying the futility of negotiations with the Arabs. In fact, according to O’Connell, a CIA translation of the final agreement depicted the Arab position as much more malleable. That being the case, the obvious question would be why the various Arab governments have not chosen to correct the record. The answer is just as obvious as the question. The recent “wiki leaks” and the “Arab Spring” have made it very clear that Arab rulers rarely tell their people the truth, especially about their attitude toward the Palestinian issue. It remains the Arab rulers’ antidote to domestic unrest although, as seen recently in Syria, it has lost some of its efficacy.
Arab betrayal of the King was graphically on display in the 1970 conflict between the Jordanian Army and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a conflict that widened into a civil war between the Palestinian community in Jordan and the East Bank Jordanians. The King was ostracized by most of his fellow Arab rulers and constantly betrayed by Yasser Arafat, who concluded numerous “cease fires” with no intention of keeping them. Again O’Connell, who distrusted Arafat, felt that Hussein delayed moving against the Palestinian organization because he tried to avoid a bloodbath but also because he trusted the word of Arafat. He was pushed into a showdown with the PLO by his army, which was outraged by PLO hubris and watching on the sidelines as the Palestinians gradually took control of large sections of Amman. The conflict was bloody, and raged on much longer than expected. Few, including most of the Near East analysts in the CIA, expected the King to prevail, particularly when the Syrians intervened with armored units, dressed in Palestinian Liberation Army colors. The Syrian threat was eliminated by the Jordanian air force, enjoying a “turkey shoot” of the Syrian tanks on the northern Jordanian desert, while uncontested by the Syrian air force. The author assessed this as being a calculation on the part of the commander, Hafez al Assad, that the intervention would fail and he would pick up the pieces and take over Syria. It was also true that the Israelis, through other country channels, made it clear that the Israeli air force would shoot down Syrian planes over Jordan.
In addition, an Iraqi armored division, which had been sitting in Jordan since the 1967 war, was expected by many to intervene to support the PLO. It did not, and quite unexpectedly began withdrawing toward the Iraqi border. Many observers then and since have been mystified by the Iraqi withdrawal. The author explains it as the consequence of an elaborate hoax created by the Jordanian chief of Intelligence, a former Iraqi Ba’thi, who convinced the Iraqi commanders that a U.S. airborne drop was to be made near the Jordanian-Iraqi border, cutting off the Iraqis from their bases and supplies. It may also have had something to do with a rather cordial relationship between Saddam Hussein and King Hussein, something the author later comments on in assessing Jordan’s lack of participation in the wars against Iraq. Stating, as the author does, that the U. S. did nothing to shore up the Hussein regime during the 1970 Palestinian crisis, is wrong. Air Force pilots bringing in heavily laden C-141’s, delivered a significant amount of ammunition and other supplies to an unimproved desert airstrip for an ammunition-starved Jordanian army. After the 1971 crisis O’Connell departed Jordan and shortly thereafter left the CIA, and as part of a law firm became King Hussein’s personal representative in Washington.
The rest of the book is the author’s impressions, drawing on conversations with CIA and Foreign Service officials, of the U.S. role in various peace negotiations after the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 and the Iraqi wars. Generally O’Connell deemed them lost opportunities; and gross miscalculations, again because of Israeli intransigence, a record of broken U.S. promises and a profound ignorance of the region, which was typified by U.S. trust in opportunists such as Ahmad Chalabi.
King Hussein found himself on the wrong side of the first Gulf war, walking a tightrope in that many of his top officials were involved in arms shipments to the Iraqis. As O’Connell states, many of the pro-Iraqi officials were of the impression that Saddam would win the showdown, influencing the King to stand aside, even though his brother, Prince Hassan, tried hard to convince him otherwise.
In the latter portion of the book O’Connell fires a lot of shotgun blasts that do little to enhance the value of his book. He opines that the first war with Iraq was unnecessary, in that Saddam was a man with whom we could have dealt. “If we had only given Saddam the respect he craved.” The second war was entered into despite “having no evidence” of weapons of mass destruction. Several years after the fact we know this, but at the time it was not the assessments of most Western intelligence including the CIA Also his many references to “neocons” a term that has been politicized out of meaning, serves no useful purpose.
The reviewer found some of his judgments rather naïve– especially for an old CIA hand living in a world of deception and deceit. He advocated, for example, a peace solution in which all the Arab countries would guarantee to recognize Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. To believe that all the unstable Arab regimes would agree to abide by a piece of paper, especially a peace with Israel, seems otherworldly. Moreover, his idea that the Palestinian problem should be resolved through an international court system seems Pollyannaish to the extreme, given the respect most Middle Eastern regimes have for international sanctions or agreements.
The book is full of amusing anecdotes about his encounters with various U.S. officials as well as stories about the King. O’Connell recounts his time waiting on the beach while the King partied with Golda Meir and other Israelis on a small island in the Gulf of Aqaba. Another is the episode when the King had his drink laced with LSD by the Hollywood actress Linda Christian, and her “sexpot” daughter.
The author died before publication of the book, and his co-author, a Washington Post journalist, could have done a much better job editing, organizing and tightening the narrative.
-Norvell “Tex” DeAtkine
For 40 years, Jack O’Connell was the epitome of the CIA agent–even after he left the Agency—as one of those who “kept the secrets.” A Middle East specialist, O’Connell rose to senior rank as acting chief of the Near East Division of the Directorate of Operations before leaving in 1972 to practice law in Washington for the next generation. However, his primary cachet throughout this period was his unique level of intimacy with and trust accorded to him by Jordanian King Hussein. From the time they met in 1958 until Hussein’s death in 1999, they bonded; Hussein trusted him absolutely, relied upon him, and (largely) took his advice.
After a tour in Beirut, O’Connell operated as station chief in Amman between 1963-71 during a dangerous and dramatic era. Subsequently, after retiring from the CIA, in 1972, O’Connell became Hussein’s lawyer and de facto personal lobbyist/consultant in Washington. He continued that role with Hussein’s successor, King Abdullah (whom he had known as a child and playmate of his children).
O’Connell contends that, inspired by Hussein’s wishes, he wrote the book to tell the “truth” of the convoluted and often bitter events in the Middle East over the past generation. Perhaps. But if so, it demonstrates that there are as many “truths” regarding the Middle East as there are descriptions of the “elephant” by the proverbial four blind men.
But what you do have with King’s Counsel is a relatively rare item in Western publication: a comprehensive pro-Palestinian/pro-Arab/Israel-skeptical account by a doubtless biased but none-the-less intimately knowledgeable and connected senior USG official. That O’Connell was also a senior intelligence officer provides a further dimension of insight. O’Connell knew not only all of the State Department reporting/analysis on the area but also all of the clandestine connections and insights. He was closely associated with all of the senior CIA officials of this period. And his generation long experience with Jordan and unique association with Hussein made him the “go to” man in dealing with king/country.
In the process, O’Connell provides fascinating detail on
• How the 1967 war unfolded, including his conclusion that the Israeli attack on the spy ship Liberty was “not an accident”;
• The many efforts to implement UN Resolution 242 and lever the Israelis to withdraw from occupied territory;
• The Palestinian-Arafat PLO uprising in 1970 and how it was crushed by the Jordanian army;
• The origins of the 1973 war which O’Connell believes was instigated by Henry Kissinger so “the United States could negotiate a cease-fire and begin a process which would remove Egypt as an enemy of Israel”;
• The machinations of USG relations with Saddam Hussein before and after the 1991 war, along with his judgment that Saddam had legitimate complaints against Kuwait; and
• The variety of contact and operations regarding Iraq/Hussein during the run up to the 2003 Gulf War, which he believes was unnecessary and counterproductive. Indeed, he comments that if Saddam had managed to assassinate one “pompous little man” (Ahmed Chalabi), the likelihood the U.S. would have invaded Iraq would have been much lower.
And there are a variety of titillating gossip column type items, including how an “aging actress” spiked Hussein’s drink with LSD, and O’Connell secured emergency medical assistance from Athens, and how he encountered British intelligence officer/spy Kim Philby immediately before he defected to Moscow. Or a misplaced U.S. briefing book in which our dismissive assessment of the King reached Hussein’s hands—with predictably negative effect. Likewise, O’Connell recounts a number of “tradecraft” events including efforts (some successful) to bug the Soviet embassy, including bugs in the legs of the Soviet ambassador’s desk, along with allusions to comprehensive taping of private Arab meetings.
He is biting in his assessments of other USG officials, such as describing UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg as a “little bantam rooster…with a Napoleon complex.” But U.S. Mideast negotiator Dennis Ross puzzled him. How could the Clinton Administration have retained him when “everything he had been involved in over the years had been a failure”? O’Connell concluded that Ross epitomized “bureaucratic efficiency. He was—and still is—a very efficient civil servant.”
But what most mars the King’s Counsel account is how totally O’Connell is an in-the-bag apologist for Hussein. Moreover, there are oddities: $15,000 per month paid directly to Hussein initially to help him fund the Jordanian intelligence service; and an annual $800,000 CIA-funded contract to provide security/protection to Hussein’s children when they were living in Washington. Or a (second hand) 50-foot yacht purchased for Hussein to provide a mechanism for the royal family to escape if necessary. Although artfully explained away by O’Connell, the magnitude of the resources provided to Hussein made it difficult to argue that he was not a bought-and-paid-for CIA asset. And it also raises implicitly the question of the extent of the CIA payroll elsewhere in the region.
Nevertheless, for O’Connell, Hussein was the patient, mannerly, controlled “adult” in the region—and constantly disrespected, overlooked, and even betrayed regardless of how effectively/persistently he presented arguments and logic for Jordanian interests. No matter how he tried, Hussein was never able to overcome his catastrophic error in the 1967 war of subordinating Jordanian forces to Egyptian command and then going to war with Israel. O’Connell admits this error, but claims that Hussein was misled by Nasser and could have done his share just by moving troops to the border, but not fighting. The consequence, however, was the loss of the “crown jewels” of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. For the rest of his life, Hussein sought fruitlessly to build on the ostensible language of UN Resolution 242 regarding return of occupied territory for “peace”—but Israel was never going to surrender tangibles such as an undivided Jerusalem and historic territory in the West Bank for an abstraction such as peace.
Thus for a supposed realist such as O’Connell, he continues to insist that the Arabs/Jordan should emphasize the legalities of their case against Israel: the illegal (according to UN Res 242) occupation of the West Bank/East Jerusalem; the illegal Israeli construction of housing/settlements in the area; the refusal to permit refugees to return to their homes. He is also disingenuous in proclaiming the virtues of the 2002 Saudi peace initiative endorsed by 22 Arab states—the proclamation in effect is no more than a demand that Israel withdraw from all occupied territories and accede to other traditional Arab requirements (refugee right of return) in exchange for peace. This is pound your head against a separation barrier logic in the hope that the wall will crack before your head does. Perhaps, trained as a lawyer and given a bad case, O’Connell chooses to emphasize the hopeful law rather than the hopeless facts.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving inter alia as a POLAD for the Army Chief of Staff. He is coauthor of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.-Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.