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A Spin

Jordan’s late King Hussein and his unsuccessful efforts to make peace get a courtier’s treatment in the new memoir from Jack O’Connell, a former CIA station chief in Amman

Allison Hoffman
July 11, 2011
King Hussein of Jordan at 27.(AFP/Getty Images)
King Hussein of Jordan at 27.(AFP/Getty Images)

The heroic Jewish narrative of the outbreak of Arab-Israeli hostilities on June 5, 1967, is well known: Israel, surrounded by massing Arab forces marshaled by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, launched the most spectacular surprise attack since Pearl Harbor, taking out its enemies’ planes on the ground in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq and enabling Israeli ground troops to seize in six miraculous days all of the Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza, and the West Bank, including the key prize of Jerusalem. But it’s not entirely true: It has been established by historians that the Arabs, and specifically Nasser, knew something was up before the Israeli attack. Indeed, Michael Oren, a historian and now Israel’s ambassador to Washington, wrote in his bestselling Six Days of War that it was Nasser who had sent a warning to Jordan’s King Hussein the day before the attacks.

Now Jack O’Connell, the CIA’s Amman station chief from 1963 to 1971, writes in his wide-ranging and loosely argued new memoir, King’s Counsel: A Memoir of War, Espionage, and Diplomacy in the Middle East, that the reverse is actually true: It was Hussein who alerted Nasser to the impending attacks, in two separate cables, the night before the Israeli Air Force struck. And how did Hussein get this intelligence? O’Connell knows: “I told him.”

It’s an astonishing claim. At the time, the United States was trying desperately not to get involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, mainly to avoid opening a new front against the Soviets at a time when U.S. forces were already fully engaged in Vietnam. The Israelis had sent a string of envoys to Washington in hopes of securing President Lyndon B. Johnson’s backing, and they’d all come away with nothing more than a tacit understanding that Johnson wouldn’t stop them from launching a war. Yet on June 4, after the U.S. embassy in Amman got word from the U.S. military attaché in Tel Aviv that the Israelis planned to start demolishing Egypt’s airfields at 8 a.m. the following day, the CIA man decided, on his own, to relay the information to a foreign head of state. “I was not authorized to tell him any of this,” O’Connell admits. “I didn’t report this to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.”

O’Connell wound up retiring from the CIA to go into private practice as Jordan’s lawyer in Washington, and his book is a courtier’s account—written, he says, to fill the gaps in the historical record left by King Hussein’s failure to complete a memoir before his death in 1999. It’s doubtful that, if Hussein had lived to write his own version, he would have included the hottest anecdote in O’Connell’s book: During a weekend retreat at the beachfront Jordanian resort of Aqaba in the summer 1967, shortly after the war, Tyrone Power’s ex-wife laced Hussein’s drink with LSD in a desperate attempt to get the married 31-year-old king in bed with her teenage daughter. “The way his aides described it,” writes O’Connell, who wasn’t present, “the king was seated in a chair but was no longer capable of discerning where his body ended and the chair began.” Help arrived in the form of a CIA medical team from Athens, dispatched with Langley’s approval.

But it’s also hard to imagine that Hussein would have authored such an angry book. Most of the stories involve what O’Connell reads as the repeated betrayal not just of Hussein’s efforts but of any commitment by either the Israelis or American Jews to achieve long-term peace. He tells a story about Arthur Goldberg, the labor lawyer appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Supreme Court, who then stepped down to become Johnson’s ambassador to the United Nations. O’Connell writes that Goldberg took a threatening tone at a meeting in November 1967, and bragged about his “blank check” from the American Jewish community. “They will buy whatever I decide upon,” O’Connell quotes Goldberg saying. In O’Connell’s view, Goldberg—an official of the American government—had no business serving only the interests of the Jewish community. He writes that Goldberg not only reneged on the backroom agreement he made guaranteeing Hussein “minor reciprocal border rectifications” from the prewar lines in exchange for peace—but also somehow engineered the disappearance of the only written document that could have proved the reversal in the U.S. position.

Later, Henry Kissinger appears as a villain for his role in the run-up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War. O’Connell goes through a complicated deductive exercise based on photographs and Kissinger’s memoirs to argue that, during a meeting in early 1973 outside Paris, Kissinger must have told the Egyptians they would have to “create a crisis” by going to war again with Israel in order to provide pretext for the Nixon Administration to re-engage with the Middle East. “We can never have a complete account of what was said at the meeting,” O’Connell writes. “But whatever words were spoken, I am convinced the Egyptians came away with the understanding that they had to go to war for the Americans to become involved in making peace.” (Kissinger did not respond to requests for comment.)

The work O’Connell has to put into making his case against Kissinger highlights the difference between history written by a historian and history written by a spy—someone who is party to events that are not generally recorded in publicly available documents, if at all. Many of the people mentioned are dead, a fact that O’Connell takes pains to point out in the text. Of those still living, one, the former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution (and Tablet Magazine contributor), flatly denied telling O’Connell what he is quoted as saying—that during the first George W. Bush Administration, Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, asked the Israeli embassy to vet the names of her potential Middle East aides. (Rice’s office did not respond to a phone call left seeking comment.)

But the other hallmark of spy memoirs is the desire for attention after careers spent on the shadowy sidelines of world events. So, it’s hardly a surprise when, toward the end of the book, O’Connell shifts from lionizing King Hussein to seeking credit for his own unrecognized contribution to the peace effort: the idea for a pan-Arab agreement that eventually became the Saudi-led Arab peace initiative. He writes that he first raised it with officials in the Clinton Administration in 1998, before the Wye River Accords were signed, and later gave a version to Hussein’s son after the king’s death in 1999. The Jordanian diplomat Marwan Muasher, the kingdom’s first ambassador to Israel, said that O’Connell’s account on that score is true. “I have the original proposal,” Muasher told me in a phone call. But on other issues—including the account of what Nasser knew in 1967—Muasher said he only knew the stories he had heard from O’Connell over the years. “I have,” he said with a slight chuckle, “no independent documentation one way or the other.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.