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Jordan's ex-spy chief wasn't too good to be true

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By David Ignatius
Sunday, December 13, 2009

When the spy movie ends, the suave intelligence chief -- having outsmarted his enemies -- dusts off the lapels of his perfectly tailored suit and disappears into his world of illusion and control.

That's not how it ended in real life, alas, for Gen. Saad Kheir, the brilliant but emotionally wounded spymaster who headed Jordan's General Intelligence Department (GID) from 2000 to 2005. He died in a hotel room in Vienna on Wednesday of a heart attack, the official Jordanian news agency reported. He was just 56.

Kheir at his best was among the greatest Arab intelligence officers of his generation. He ran a series of masterful penetration operations against Palestinian extremist groups and, later, al-Qaeda. "He set the standard for how we do it," said one former CIA officer who worked closely with him.

I got to know Kheir five years ago when I was researching a novel about the Middle East called "Body of Lies," which was later made into a movie that starred Leonardo DiCaprio. Kheir was the model for my fictional Jordanian intelligence chief, "Hani Salaam." Like all GID chiefs, Kheir was addressed by the Ottoman honorific of "pasha," so I gave the sobriquet of "Hani Pasha" to my fictional version.

Hani Pasha (played in the movie by British actor Mark Strong) stole the show, and for a simple reason -- he was based on a true master of the game. My character's tradecraft, manners, even his wardrobe were all modeled on those of the real pasha.

It was George Tenet, then director of the CIA, who first described to me Kheir's brilliance as an operator. 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, and it's hard to think of a foreigner who helped save more American lives than Saad Pasha.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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