Jordan's King: LSD, Fortune Tellers, and Black September

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

He did not like Shimon Peres, and pushed for Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1996 elections - though he soon regretted it. Years before Ehud Olmert met Morris Talansky, this man already was receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in brown envelopes from Americans, though he was too noble to open them in front of his CIA handler. He warned Gamal Abdel Nasser about the Six-Day War, and Golda Meir about the Yom Kippur War, but neither listened to him.

King Hussein of Jordan died 10 years ago this month, on February 7, 1999. He was 63, and had ruled the Hashemite Kingdom for four and a half decades, since he was old enough to vote. He led an artificial strip of a country that the British had carved out of the Arabian Desert for their own needs. He started out with both banks of the Jordan and ended up with one, not including Jerusalem.

The royal palace in Amman took a liking to Nigel Ashton, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics, and gave him rare access to Hussein's private archive. Ashton also draws on British and American documentation, and interviews with close acquaintances of the king, particularly his confidant, Zeid Rifai.

The palace did not explicitly require Ashton to take a favorable attitude toward his subject in the biography "King Hussein of Jordan: A Political Life" (Yale University Press, 2008). He leaves judgment to the reader.

Ashton describes Hussein's brush with LSD (Linda Christian, described as a "fading starlet" from Hollywood, brought it to one of the king's parties; the king needed medical treatment afterward), as well as how the king chose which day to attack the Palestinian rebels, in what would become Black September of 1970, based on the advice of his sister-in-law's fortune teller in London. But the most interesting secrets Ashton reveals are related to politics, the military and intelligence.

The most spectacular secret is that Hussein leaked the Israeli decision to declare war on Egypt on June 5, 1967, to Egyptian President Nasser. The leak originally came from Mossad head Meir Amit, after he visited Washington at the end of May 1967, to repair the damage from Foreign Minister Abba Eban's talks with President Lyndon Johnson and his cabinet. Amit made considerable achievements during that well-documented visit, ascertaining (with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and others) that there was no point in waiting for international action to break Egypt's blockade of the Straits of Tiran, and he secured the American flank of the war.

However, Amit himself became a source of intelligence for his interlocutors, and indirectly, for their interlocutors, and for those interlocutors' interlocutors, too. In a secret June 2, 1967 memorandum labeled "sensitive," which was declassified last month and is not included in the book, CIA Director Richard Helms briefed Johnson on his talks with Amit.

"Amit thinks the Israeli decision will be to strike. Regarding the outcome of a war, Amit said he sees an Israeli victory in three to four weeks, with Israeli losses of about 4,000 military personnel. There would be damage to Israel from Egyptian air strikes and from the Egyptians' missile boats, but, Amit said, Israel had 'some surprises' of its own ... After learning today of his and Ambassador [to Washington Avraham] Harman's orders to return [home], Amit told one of our senior officers this morning that he felt this must mean the time of decision has come for the Israeli Government. He stated there would have to be a decision in a matter of days."

Helms explained to Johnson, McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and National Security Adviser Walt Rostow that Amit "almost certainly shares the views of General Dayan, Israel's new defense minister, since Amit and Dayan have been very close for many years. Both are Sabras - men born in Israel - and their past careers have been closely connected. It seems clear from Amit's remarks that the 'tough' Israelis, who have never forgotten that they are surrounded by hostile Arabs, are driving hard for a forceful solution, with us and with their own government.

"Dayan's appointment, combined with Amit's and Harman's recall, can be seen as an ominous portent, considering the Israelis' military capability to strike with little or no warning at a time of their choosing. Amit opined, however, that Israel had lost the 'moment of surprise' by its failure to strike early last week. He indicated that this was a very important element, implying that the Israelis may engage in some sort of deception to lull the Arabs."

An "attachment" to the memorandum elaborated further on Amit's approach. The Mossad chief is quoted as telling the CIA officials that as of June 1, "Israel cannot wait longer than a few days or a week" and that the country's economy is "suffering" because of the prolonged crisis. "There are no workers in the fields, and the harvest is still standing ... It is better to die fighting than from starving."

The Johnson administration did not want to let Nasser in on the Israeli secret, but that is what happened when Johnson warned King Hussein: The Americans feared the king would fall due to Egyptian or Syrian subversion, or in the wake of an Israeli reprisal raid against Palestinian terrorism launched from Jordanian territory.

Ashton, in his book and in a discussion in his London office, prefers not to identify the source of the warning, but the almost unavoidable conclusion is that it was Jack O'Connell, the CIA station chief in Amman at the time. O'Connell was Hussein's handler and paid him the dollars. (The money ostensibly was earmarked for financing Hussein's security apparatus, before the creation of the Mukhabarat, the local secret service, and later to hire a company owned by President Gerald Ford's son to protect both Hussein and his heir, Abdullah, while they were studying in the United States.)

Hussein, it turns out, had a special fondness for foreign intelligence personnel, preferably native English speakers: O'Connell and his successors in the CIA, the head of MI6 - British intelligence - in Amman, Bill Speares (code name: "Mary"), and his wife, Peggy, and Efraim Halevy of the Mossad. It was a former CIA man who connected the offices of Hussein and Golda.

Operation Moked, the Israeli air strike on the morning of June 5, was an overwhelming surprise only because Nasser did not believe Hussein. Nasser suspected the tale was a ruse aimed to make him surrender, just as Hussein suspected Nasser was plotting against him personally (to detain him when he landed by plane in Cairo) and against Jordan.

In September 1973, Hussein found himself in a similar position with regard to Golda Meir. He revealed to her that Anwar Sadat and Hafez Assad were planning to attack Israel, but she refused to believe that war was imminent.

One of the lessons from these episodes is that the value of intelligence will always be quite limited. Leaders, even if they accept the information at face value, or use a secret channel for contacts with the enemy, make their decisions in a broad political context.

Jordan, it has long been known, had an important source in the Syrian army. Ashton takes another step toward revealing his identity, relating that the collection officer who recruited him was Abboud Salem, a pilot in the Iraqi air force who became an intelligence officer and defected to Jordan. A relative of his wife's was a division commander in the Syrian army, and this person divulged to Salem the operational plans against Israel.

Ashton relates that Hussain said his meeting with Golda Meir was intended to extract information she had received from her Egyptian sources: Jordan was hesitant to rely solely on the Syrian source, however well placed. Hussein wanted to prevent a war by describing the gravity of the danger, in order to induce Israel to embark on a diplomatic path. Meanwhile, the Syrian commander's warning was passed to the CIA via the station chief in Amman, but Helms was no longer in Washington.

In the period preceding the Yom Kippur War of 1973 the CIA was headed by a weak, new figure, William Colby, the third director within six months. The report he sent Henry Kissinger was not earthshaking. Kissinger's aide, Thomas Pickering, told Ashton that a few days before the war broke out, Kissinger was overwrought and constantly asked his aides whether there was any new information from the Middle East about heightened war preparations. But there was nothing.

One of the details the Syrian division commander sent his handlers in Jordan was the date of the war. It was Hussein who assumed that "2 P.M. on Yom Kippur" referred to Yom Kippur eve, when masses of Israelis are on their way home and chaos reigns - and not the following day, on Yom Kippur itself. When that Friday passed quietly, Hussein wondered whether the decision to attack had been rescinded.

Hussein's relations with politicians, officers and civil servants in Israel fill long chapters and much room in the royal archives. He was especially appreciative of those who symbolized masculinity and heroism, though this was not always mutual. Two cases in point were Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin. Peres left him so frustrated that in the end, "he worked behind his back in favor of Netanyahu" during the 1996 elections, was delighted at his victory, and "pressed other Arab leaders to give him the benefit of the doubt," as Ashton writes. He was ultimately disappointed, and found a new target for his hopes: Ehud Barak.