Truth and Misinformation: Yasser Arafat and the CIA

What is there in common between the CIA and Michael J. Morell, its former acting director, and the late Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO)? Very little, except that both were involved in misunderstandings about or manipulation of information about events with which they were officially concerned.

Michael Morell, who became acting director after the resignation of David Petraeus, became embroiled in two related controversies concerning the attacks on September 11. 2012 on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. The first is the question of who was responsible for the attacks? The other is the more unsettled one: why was incorrect information, whether it was known to be false or not, about responsibility for the attacks given to Congress and to the American public?

The debate on these two issues has gone on for 18 months. The first issue is now clarified, to the satisfaction of most reasonable people. The event was a preplanned attack carried out by 150 terrorists who were linked to some way to al-Qaeda, and not a spontaneous protest sparked by an obscure video as was once suggested. The issue here is why U.S. officials delayed calling the attack a terrorist attack, and persisted in downplaying the role of terrorists.

The second issue is still not completely resolved, for political or other reasons. The essential problem ranges around the question of who was responsible, deliberately or otherwise, for drafting incorrect or false statements. To her misfortune, Susan Rice, the then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was given those incorrect talking points and repeated on five TV shows in one day that it was the obscure video, not terrorists that had sparked the revolt.

The real nature of the event should have been clear from the start. The email sent, as the attack was occurring, by the CIA Chief of Station in Tripoli to Morell was that the event was “not, not an escalation of protests.” Nevertheless, the initial official narrative of the U.S. intelligence community was that it was a spontaneous protest. It is fair to ask if this was politically motivated in a deliberate attempt to prevent embarrassment of the White House or to limit any damage to the State Department, ultimately responsible for the safety of the diplomats in Benghazi.

Congressional hearings on the matter have not elicited a clear answer to the question: who wrote the original talking points and who altered them for public consumption?  Morell admitted he removed the word “Islamic” from the reference to “Islamic militants” who were the guilty party, but it is still unclear who removed references to “al-Qaeda” from the talking points given to Congress. There are conflicting stories. Was it the group of intelligence officers from the Office of Congressional Affairs, or the officials from CIA public affairs, or the FBI?

This dispute over the Benghazi attack bears an uncanny resemblance to a similar event concerning Yasser Arafat. It concerned who was responsible for planning or initiating or causing the Second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000? Was it the PLO leader Arafat who was responsible or was it a spontaneous popular uprising that was caused by the visit of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a few days earlier to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The version proclaimed by the Palestinian Authority is that Sharon’s visit to that Holy Place was the reason for the outbreak of the Intifada that lasted five years, led to suicide bombings against Israeli cities, caused more than a thousand deaths, and delayed any hope of peace negotiations. That narrative is part of the overall revisionist history in the Palestinian Narrative of Victimhood, the story of calamities caused by Israel. Yet the reality is quite different.

Documents and public statements by Palestinians make clear that Yasser Arafat had planned and was determined to mount the violence against Israel after the breakdown of peace talks at the second Camp David summit on July 25, 2000.  Instructions to this effect were given to the Palestinian security forces. Arafat had already signaled his intentions in a speech to the Fatah movement in Nablus a month earlier. He said, referring to Arab battles, “We will sacrifice our lives for Palestine. (We) should remember the battle of Karameh, the Beirut Campaign, and the seven years of the (first) Intifada. We are willing to erase everything and start everything afresh.”

A number of statements by individuals close to Arafat describe his decision to launch action by the political and security bodies of the Palestinian Authority. Meetings were held to discuss tactics by the forces controlled by the Authority. A clear statement was made in March 2001 by Imad Falluji , the Minister of Communications of the PA,  that Sharon was not responsible but that “It was planned since Arafat’s return from Camp David, and his rejection of President Bill Clinton’s peace proposals.”

Perhaps most telling are the statements, two slightly different versions, by Suha Arafat, widow of Yasser, on TV interviews on November 12, 2011 and again on December 12, 2011 that Arafat had decided to initiate the Intifada. In one version the leader told her to leave “Palestine, because I want to start an intifada.” In the second version she said, “We met in Paris and he asked me to remain there” because “I am going to start an intifada.” Arafat explained he was doing this because “he was asked to betray the Palestinian people, but he was not about to do so.”

Besides the confessions of the unrestrained widow is the bland if surprising statement on June 29, 2010 by Mahmoud Al-Zahar, one of the leaders of Hamas. He stated that Arafat had ordered not only his Fatah forces but also the Hamas movement to carry out military actions against Israel after he believed that negotiations had failed. Al-Zahar differed from Arafat on the rationale for and actions during the Intifada. Arafat had said he wanted to use terror attacks for tactical purposes, to pressure Israel presumably to improve his position in negotiations. The Hamas leader, however, wanted not merely tactical pressure but the attacks to be strategic ones against the State of Israel, euphemism for the elimination of Israel.

In spite of all these assertions about the direct responsibility of Yasser in initiating the Second Intifada, some still persist in the belief that he was simply responding to Israeli provocation. Those who persist are akin to those who propagated the falsehood that a silly video that no one had seen was responsible for a planned attack against U.S. interests by 150 well-armed terrorists in Benghazi. However, the falsehood by Palestinians and their supporters in allocating blame to Sharon is more important than the present differences in Washington over Benghazi. That issue will be resolved politically or otherwise in the not too distant future.  By contrast the Palestinian falsehood is still widely believed. Unfortunately, this only contributes to the reluctance of Palestinian leaders to enter the negotiating process.

Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.