Posted by Joshua on Sunday, December 13th, 2009
David Ignatius goes to the heart of Washington’s love -hate relationship with the mukhabarat in today’s Washington Post: Jordan’s ace of spies. The Mukhabarat are the secret police services that dominate Middle Eastern security regimes. The US has become dependent on them to protect its security interests in the region.
Mukhabarat are the antithesis of freedom and democracy, which America champions in much of the world. In the Middle East , however, the US seems to have lost its moral compass. The complex relationship between Washington and the various Mukhabarat forces of the Middle East stands as testimony to America’s need for muscle to protect its security interests in a region, where it is not popular.
Ignatius writes of Gen. Saad Kheir, “the brilliant but emotionally wounded spymaster who headed Jordan’s General Intelligence Department (GID) from 2000 to 2005.… he was a genius… a superstar….”
Kheir researched his targets so thoroughly that he got inside their lives…. A former CIA officer told me about one sublime pitch….. Like many Arab intelligence services, the [Jordanian mukhabarat] has a reputation for using brutal interrogation methods, and I’m sure that it didn’t get the nickname “the fingernail factory” for nothing. But Kheir’s successes in interrogation often came from a different kind of intimidation. Colleagues recall him standing behind a suspect, his voice deep with menace, as he talked of the suspect’s family, friends and contacts. That was much scarier than physical violence would have been. He waited for them to break themselves, and it usually worked…. in his prime, he was a genius… He made his name penetrating Palestinian extremist groups…. It’s hard to think of a foreigner who helped save more American lives than Saad Pasha.
Arab Mukhabarat chieftains, so reviled in the US press, are openly admired by the official class in Washington for their brutal freedoms.
Ignatius draws a sharp line between physical and mental torture. He reviles physical torture but recognizes the genius of mental menace, especially when used to break anti-American extremists.
Reading Ignatius’ opinion piece reminded me of an evening I spent with Staff Sgt. Eric Maddox who was the intelligence officer responsible for capturing Saddam Hussein. As a graduate of the University of Oklahoma, Maddox was a natural invitee to speak about the intelligence behind Saddam’s capture. Maddox was an excellent speaker. Like Ignatius, he abhorred physical torture and had spoken out adamantly and bravely against it within the US intelligence community. He explained that mental pressure was the key to gaining useful information.
Once Maddox realized that he had arrested the head of Saddam’s insurgency, Muhammad Ibrahim, US soldiers swept up over forty members of Ibrahim’s family and extended clan in Takrit. Maddox explained that the psychological pressure he could bring to bear on Ibrahim was overwhelming. Ibrahim knew that he could have his entire family freed if only he provided information on Saddam. Ibrahim caved quickly.
In the audience at OU was a Syrian refugee, Mohammad Al Abdallah, whose father still languishes in a Syrian prison. Mohammad had also been imprisoned but was eventually released after a long and grueling period of interrogation. On his release he had traveled to Lebanon, from where he was eventually granted refugee status in the US. Mohammad arrived in the US only the month before Maddox came to talk at OU. By coincidence, Mohammad was settled by US authorities in Oklahoma City, where he looked me up. I invited him to dinner and to hear the Maddox talk.
Ironically, Mohammad’s father worked for the PLO, which for most of its existence was considered a Palestinian extremist group by the US. His father could easily have been one of the prisoners that Ignatius wrote about. At the end of Maddox’s talk, Mohammad raised his hand and explained that he was a recent refugee who had been tortured, not so much physically as mentally. He explained that he appreciated Maddox’s distinction between physical and mental torture and that he understood the importance for the Americans and Iraqis of capturing Saddam Hussein. All the same, he described how he had been subjected to mental torture by intelligence officers who were probably no less convinced of their righteousness. The Syrian secret police were holding Mohammad’s father when they interrogated Mohammad. He explained that he would have preferred to be physically tortured.
The audience hushed. One could hear only awkward shuffling. Staff Sgt. Eric Maddox also fell silent. What could one say? It was a very important moment for everyone at the talk.
All the Mukhabarat services have experts like Saad Kheir, who are experts in a “different kind of intimidation.” They know how to “stand behind a suspect with menace and talk of the suspect’s family, friends and contacts.”
Jordan’s ace of spies
By David Ignatius
Sunday, December 13, 2009
…. I asked Tenet in 2003 if any foreign intelligence services had been especially helpful against al-Qaeda, and he answered instantly, “The Jordanians,” and continued with Tenetian enthusiasm, “Their guy Saad Kheir is a superstar!”
So the next time I was in Amman, I asked the royal palace if I could meet the legendary intelligence chief, and it was duly arranged. I was driven to the GID’s fearsome headquarters, past its black flag bearing the ominous warning in Arabic “Justice Has Come” and escorted upstairs to the pasha’s office.
Kheir had a rough, boozy charm — somewhere between Humphrey Bogart and Omar Sharif. He was dressed elegantly, as always — in this case, a cashmere blazer, a knit tie and a pair of what looked to be handmade English shoes.
The pasha told me a few stories, and others filled in the details: He made his name penetrating Palestinian extremist groups, such as the Abu Nidal organization. Once he had burrowed into the terrorists’ lair, he was able to plant rumors and disinformation that set the group’s members fighting among themselves. Before long, Abu Nidal’s fraternity of killers had imploded in a frenzy of suspicion and self-destruction. I stole that idea for “Body of Lies.”
Kheir researched his targets so thoroughly that he got inside their lives. A former CIA officer told me about one sublime pitch: Kheir tracked a jihadist to an apartment in Eastern Europe and handed him a cellphone, saying: “Talk to your mother.” The man’s mom was actually on the line, telling him he was a wonderful son for buying her a new TV and a couch and sending her money. “The spoken message was, ‘We can do good things for you.’ The unspoken message was, ‘We can hurt you,’ ” explained the CIA officer. I took that scene, too, verbatim.
Like many Arab intelligence services, the GID has a reputation for using brutal interrogation methods, and I’m sure that it didn’t get the nickname “the fingernail factory” for nothing. But Kheir’s successes in interrogation often came from a different kind of intimidation. Colleagues recall him standing behind a suspect, his voice deep with menace, as he talked of the suspect’s family, friends and contacts. That was much scarier than physical violence would have been. He waited for them to break themselves, and it usually worked.
Kheir ran afoul of his boss, King Abdullah, when he began pushing into politics and business. It was the classic overreach of intelligence chiefs in the Middle East, and he was sacked in 2005. His dismissal took a cruel toll: Kheir could be seen carousing late at night at his favorite restaurant in Amman, no longer a master of the universe or even, fully, master of himself. But in his prime, he was a genius….