Analysis & Opinions - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

A Face in the Crowd

| Oct. 17, 2018

In an interview with Michael Young, Jeffrey G. Karam discusses the papers of Emir Farid Chehab, a former Lebanese spy chief.

Jeffrey G. Karam is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University. He is also a nonresident associate at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative. Previously, Karam was a postdoctoral research fellow in the International Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Karam’s research and teaching spans the subfields of international relations, international security, and U.S. foreign policy. He is currently finishing his first book on the politics of U.S. intelligence and foreign policymaking in the Middle East and is the author of several articles, book chapters, and policy briefs on U.S. intelligence and foreign policy in the Middle East. In this context, Karam has recently been analyzing the private papers of Emir Farid Chehab, the former director of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate (Sûreté Générale), and has written on the topic in the media. To discuss what he found, Diwan interviewed him in early October. He can be followed on Twitter: @JGKaram.

Michael Young: Who is Emir Farid Chehab and what is the importance of his private papers?

Jeffrey G. Karam: Emir Farid Chehab served as the director of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate from 1948 to 1958, and is know as the “Father of General Security.” This organization was Lebanon’s first intelligence agency and its raison d’être is keeping government officials fully appraised of looming threats to national security. After he ran the security outfit for ten years, Chehab was appointed ambassador to various countries, including Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia, Cyprus, and Cameroon.

The Chehab private papers are important for several reasons. First and foremost, as I mentioned in a recent article in Lebanon’s Daily Starnewspaper, they provide an important gateway into the inner workings of Lebanon’s most important and efficient security apparatus during the early years of the Cold War.

Second, they are an invaluable source for understanding Lebanon’s role as a center of regional and global bickering, and help explain why some military plots and revolts were hatched in different hotels bars, including the St. Georges Hotel Bar, and other locations.

Third, the papers trace in different ways sociopolitical and economic developments, and underdevelopment, in Lebanon in the period before independence in 1943, leading up to the outbreak of the civil war in 1975.

MY: What are the main themes that you discovered in Chehab’s papers? What is it that he obsessed about as head of the General Security Directorate?

JK: As Lebanon’s premier spy chief at the time, Chehab focused on several things. For instance, he looked at the role and growth of underground communist and nationalist cells in different milieus, be it the military, academia, and elsewhere. Another important theme relates to the connections between minority groups in Lebanon, such as the Kurdish and Armenian communities, and other states in the Arab world, the wider Middle East, and Europe. Chehab also had a network of informants to keep a close watch on possible military coups in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

In terms of what you call “obsessed,” it is important to note that all spy chiefs are usually paranoid and fixated on avoiding surprises. They hate surprises and are constantly on the lookout for advance warnings and indicators of trouble down the road. A successful surprise, be it an attack or simply the inability to understand that an important development might unravel and have a significant impact, is certainly the foremost concern of any spy chief. A degree of obsession comes with the job and Chehab’s emphasis on how pro-communist and communist groups might seek to challenge existing regimes is widespread in the papers. Also, a recurring theme is his focus on what he perceived to be the threat of “radical” Arab nationalist movements and communist elements, especially in the police and armed forces.

MY: The papers cover a crucial period of the postwar Arab world, particularly the 1950s and 1960s. What do they tell us about Lebanon in those years?

JK: A few important things. First, it is very clear that Chehab’s papers reflect on the delicate balance of power between Lebanon’s political elite. In fact, Chehab’s analyses focus on intrasectarian competition and cross-sectarian alliances, as well as the important fact that many Lebanese leaders, including political and religious leaders, exploited sectarian tensions for their own personal interests.

Second, Lebanon was truly at the crossroads of imperial competition and regional rivalries. Specifically, many leaders and groups in the country banked on foreign support to empower themselves domestically. In line with many accounts that have been produced on Lebanon in the 1950s and 1960s, Chehab’s analysis suggests that events in the Middle East always aggravated existing domestic problems between various Lebanese political elites.

MY: As a scholar, what did you find in his papers that was most interesting or valuable for your work?

JK: That is a tough one. There are many interesting findings in the papers. It is quite interesting to get a “local” take on a very critical period in the history of Lebanon and the Middle East. Specifically, I found four valuable takeaways.

First, while Chehab officially was the director of General Security between 1948 and 1958, his role as a spy chief neither began in 1948 nor ended in 1958. In fact, he provided thorough analytical reports, mostly in the form of personal notes and reflections, from a number of sources in the 1930s and 1940s, and, more importantly, continued to receive high-level intelligence reports well beyond September 1958, when he left office.

We have little evidence to fully understand why Chehab kept on receiving such intelligence after his resignation. However, one working assumption is that his instrumental role in building General Security and recruiting dozens of officers during his tenure allowed him to stay fully appraised of important intelligence after he left office. Chehab built extensive working, and often personal, ties with the officers and, as I said earlier, had networks of informants in Lebanon and the Middle East. It seems plausible that these networks did not view his formal resignation as the end of his role as spy chief.

Second, Chehab’s close watch of communist and nationalist cells, particularly among the Kurdish and Armenian minorities in Lebanon and other Arab states, and their connections to foreign countries, is detailed and quite interesting. However, using a Cold War lens, Chehab’s surveillance of groups that had any connections to the Soviet Union did not automatically make him pro-American. He was sympathetic to the West and benefited from close contacts with British spy chiefs and American intelligence officers. But he was also dubious about U.S. interests in the Middle East and whether the Americans truly comprehended the region’s sociopolitical complexities, its people, and its struggles.

Third, Chehab’s papers provide solid evidence that good intelligence work—mainly the collection and analysis of scattered bits of information and their timely dissemination to policymakers—always requires leaders who are willing to listen. In a way similar to other spy chiefs, Chehab’s reports were frequently written in such a way as to ensure that the intended recipient would remain focused and committed to reading through the different sections.

Fourth, the most valuable finding for my own research is that Chehab’s detailed analyses clearly suggest that Arab military officials and intelligence officers were not simply proxies in the “game of nations” between regional and global powers. The memoirs and accounts of many Western intelligence officers in the Middle East, including CIA agents Wilbur Crane Eveland and Miles Copeland, suggest that many Arab diplomats, military officers, and intelligence officials had limited agency.

However, Chehab’s papers paint a different picture. They suggest that Arab intelligence officers and diplomats were, likewise, keeping a close tab on suspected revolutionary and counterrevolutionary cells in their militaries, especially the officer corps. They were also focused on analyzing signs of disaffection within minority groups, as well as the suspected relationships between locals and Western diplomats and intelligence officials.

The Chehab papers in effect break away from the overly Western-centric records usually consulted to write on intelligence and security topics in the Middle East. While there are many gaps in these papers, one can still muster important leads to complement and, to an extent, challenge some of the long-held assumptions in scholarly works that were often written with an Orientalist mindset.

MY: Will these documents be accessible to other researchers online?

JK: The private papers were always available at the Middle East Center Archive at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. In fact, Youmna ‘Asseily, Chehab’s daughter, and Ahmad Asfahani produced an edited volume based on these papers. The volume, A Face In The Crowd: The Secret Papers of Emir Farid Chehab, 1942–1972was published in 2007. However, the History and Public Policy Program at the Wilson Center, with ‘Asseily’s support, started digitizing the collection in 2016 to make these documents accessible to researchers online. Scholars, curious readers, and anyone with access to the internet can sift through the documents and explore the massive collection in that fashion. As a scholar, I commend the Wilson Center for making these documents available and I am convinced that more research institutes and think tanks will continue to digitize important collections for scholars and interested readers.

The photograph for this article was provided to Jeffrey G. Karam by Youmna ‘Asseily, Chehab’s daughter, from personal family albums. For the original publication visit Carnegie Middle East Center: English, Arabic

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:A Face in the Crowd.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 17, 2018.