Commentary

Diving into the papers of Farid Chehab, Lebanon’s first spy chief

On Sept. 6, 2018, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. announced the addition of nearly 1,900 files from the private archives of Emir Farid Chehab. Referred to as the “Father of the Surete Generale [General Security],” Chehab served as the founding general director of Lebanon’s first intelligence agency.Known as the General Directorate of General Security, the primary duties of this organization are to collect and analyze intelligence, and inform the Lebanese government of threats to national security.

Chehab’s vast collection of primary records, primarily in Arabic, promises researchers and curious readers an insider’s look into Lebanese history and developments in the Middle East in the 20th century. As a scholar who researches, writes and teaches about the politics of intelligence, secrecy and foreign policymaking, I’m thrilled at the prospect of scouring his hundreds of analyses, notes and correspondence with informants in the Middle East during the Cold War and at times marked by wars, military coups, revolutions and political crises.

While the Chehab papers were available at the Middle East Centre Archive at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, the History and Public Policy Program at the Wilson Center started digitizing the collection since 2016. What do Chehab’s private papers offer to scholars and curious readers interested in the political and security history of Lebanon and wider Middle East?

In brief, the papers that stretch from the 1930s to the early 1980s consist of personal analyses, military and security reports, correspondences with informants and diplomats, and news reports.

Accepting that these are personal papers, and hence represent the subjective view of a key security leader in Lebanon, we can still undoubtedly though cautiously explore them for a more nuanced understanding of the past.

The papers trace the evolution of different political parties and militias in various Arab states, primarily Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon. More importantly, Chehab’s detailed focus on revolutionary cells in different Arab militaries and plans for coup d’etats is interesting for researchers working on civil-military relations and the rise and consolidation of authoritarianism in the Arab world, especially between the 1940s and 1970s.

Here are some personal reflections.

The Cold War Framework

Chehab’s papers survey the advent of American power after the Suez Crisis of 1956 and clearly suggest a deep mistrust of American interests in the Middle East.

In fact, in early 1957, the emir provides an assessment of the “Eisenhower Project” and America’s vast military support to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan to undercut Soviet and Communist influence in the Middle East. His analyses of the Cold War in the Middle East corroborate accounts at the time that viewed nationalist and revolutionary movements as staunchly pro-Soviet and anti-Western.

While scholars have dug up American and British archives to challenge these assumptions and demonstrate that the Eisenhower Doctrine had the implicit objective of containing revolutionary Arab nationalists rather than Soviet supported entities, Chehab’s analyses and perceptions primarily fed into the Cold War lens.

This lens considered that struggles in the Middle East during the 1950s could only be understood as a reflection of competition between the United States and the Soviet Union over influence.

While Chehab cannot be considered as a staunch supporter of the U.S., his reflections on American’s role in undercutting Soviet and Communist influence in the Middle East is evident with his lengthy accounts of “Communist aggression and subversion.” In the context of cold war rivalries, this anti-communist perspective placed him closer to the Western camp.

Regional Spy Networks, Transnational Actors

The documents also spend adequate time tracing different spies and suspected moles in different states, including Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Turkey.

Some of the papers in the collection also focus on European spies and diplomats, including ones from the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

Chehab’s analyses likewise focus on “Kurdish activities” in different Arab and non-Arab states, and how the Communist Party in Iraq, and what he dubs as the “Jazeera region,” was building strong ties with “Kurdish activists” across the Middle East. This of course, might have been related to his anti-communist stance given the strong appeal communism reached within the Kurdish community, particularly with the Kurdish Khaled Bakdash, who was at the time at the helm of the Communist Party in Syria, and to a larger extent its Lebanese counterpart as well.

Specifically, one of the most interesting and important findings in Chehab’s documentation of spy networks relates to tracing the role of local Arab handlers and their assets around critical junctures during the 1940s and 1950s. Most of these turning points center on the multiple coup d’etats and attempted military revolts in the Arab world. A true “spymaster,” the emir was immensely worried about military coups and coordinated with dozens of informants to collect information and provide advance warning of any surprises on the horizon.

For instance, in the late 1940s, Chehab and his network of spies kept a close eye on Adib Shishakli, a military leader and later president of Syria, and his secret plans and meetings with fellow Syrian and Lebanese military officers to stage military coups and seize power in Syria.

In his analyses, Chehab also reflected on the driving forces that enabled Husni al-Zaim to seize power in March 1949.

Lebanon and the Arab Cold War

Scholars, journalists and former Western intelligence officers have spent ink discussing Lebanon’s role as a center for secret meetings and espionage during the Cold War. In fact, Said Aburish, the Palestinian historian and famous journalist, wrote about the St. Georges Hotel bar as one of the preferred venues for international spies, coup-plotters, oil executives and diplomats during the 1950s and 1960s.

Moreover, a few former Central Intelligence Officers, including Miles Copeland and Wilbur Eveland, equally wrote controversial books on spy operations and military coups that were planned in Lebanon and executed across the Middle East against the backdrop of regional rivalry between revolutionary Arab nationalists, led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, and pro-Western monarchies, led by Iraq and later Saudi Arabia.

Against this background, Chehab’s analyses focus on the role of “regional powers,” especially Egypt and Syria, in influencing the controversial and now known CIA-sponsored Lebanese parliamentary elections of 1957. While scholars have examined America’s role in providing funds through the CIA Beirut station to ensure the Parliament remained in close alignment with the West, Chehab’s analyses are predominantly focused on “Syrian and Egyptian” military intelligence activities, and support for what later became the “opposition against President Camille Chamoun and the Eisenhower Project in Lebanon.”

Bearing in mind that Chehab ran an extensive network of spies in Lebanon and other Arab capitals, there is scarce evidence that points to America’s intelligence role in the elections of 1957.

This is quite surprising because many of his reports suggest that he was concerned with the possible penetration of Lebanon’s spy agencies and networks by local and foreign moles, mainly Egyptian, American and Soviet intelligence officers.

Furthermore, Chehab and his assets kept an eye out for suspected intelligence officers and liaisons between Arab and Western diplomats and military officers in Lebanon.

Likewise, a good portion of the papers provide “security reports” on the political crisis and later armed insurrection in Lebanon in 1958. This indeed is a welcome and important local account of this critical episode in Lebanese history.

Most of Chehab’s security reports in 1958, however, focus on Kamal Joumblatt’s “training camps” and the suspected “smuggling of weapons and personnel from Syria to Lebanon.”

One of the most interesting findings in his security reports and correspondence with various informants relates to his close watch of the activities of various opposition leaders, including Saeb Salam and Joumblatt, in spite of the presence of scores of American troops in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon.

While some of the analyses mention the American intervention, one of his primary concerns was whether Western troops would be attacked by “Egyptian or Syrian forces” or even Soviet-backed “instigators.”

Rewriting Lebanon’s History?

Will the Farid Chehab papers allow scholars to rewrite Lebanon’s history from independence to the Civil War in 1975?

The private papers offer new insights into some of the most important developments in Lebanon’s modern history.

Although the papers might not provide sufficient material for scholars to rewrite Lebanon’s history, what they do offer, however, is an added perspective on critical security developments in Lebanon and the Middle East during the Cold War.

More importantly, they offer an important “local” perspective on developments that scholars have predominantly analyzed through the lens of Western archival sources and narratives.

It is worth noting that Chehab’s close watch of the communist and nationalist elements in Lebanon and the Middle East could inform existing and new scholarship on some of these activists and their movements, if read against the grain.

The digitization of the Chehab papers is a welcome addition to existing archival sources on Lebanon and the Middle East.

Fellow social scientists that research and write about the politics of intelligence and how information is collected, analyzed and disseminated, and historians that search the past to provide revisionist accounts will most certainly find interesting material in these archives. But why take my word for it? Unleash your inner detective and explore the inner thoughts of Lebanon’s first spy chief yourself.

Jeffrey G. Karam, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University. He is also a nonresident associate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Middle East Initiative. Previously, he was a postdoctoral research fellow in the International Security Program at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. You can follow him on Twitter @JGKaram.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 06, 2018, on page 7.

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