Book Review

A spy memoir from a king’s former adviser

Ex-CIA agent Jack O'Connell assisted King Hussein of Jordan (pictured) for three decades. Ex-CIA agent Jack O'Connell assisted King Hussein of Jordan (pictured) for three decades. (Yousef Allan/AP/File 1996)
By Molly Young
May 27, 2011

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There aren’t many authors who would dare to include, early in their book’s introduction, a briskly casual aside like: “The meetings were uneventful. I did not know then that he was a Soviet mole.’’ Jack O’Connell’s “King’s Counsel’’ is one such effort, and it is not, as a reader of that excerpt might predict, a spy novel, but something potentially more exciting: a spy memoir.

O’Connell, who died in 2010, was a former CIA agent who served as station chief in Amman, Jordan, and acted as King Hussein’s adviser, attorney, and diplomatic counselor for three decades. A native of South Dakota trained as a lawyer, O’Connell originally came to the Middle East on a two-year Fulbright fellowship in Pakistan, where he wrote his master’s thesis on whether it was possible for an Islamic country to be a democratic state. (The conclusion young O’Connell came to during that period between 1950 and 1952 was yes.) In 1958 he met the then-22-year-old Jordanian king, and the period that follows is the subject of his straight-shooting book.

Things got off to a strong start: Almost immediately O’Connell helped expose a plot to overthrow the monarch, had the 22 plotters arrested, extracted confessions (without, he pointedly specifies, any sort of advanced interrogation method), and put the men on trial. With the king safe and sound, he returned home for a spell before relocating to Beirut in 1960, during a comparatively Edenic period for Lebanon. (He stowed a shotgun in the closet of his ocean-view flat, just in case.) In 1963, O’Connell moved again with his family to Amman, Jordan’s capital, to serve as CIA chief of station, where he quickly developed a close relationship with the king. The bond, indeed, was so deep that before dying in 1999, the ruler made his wishes clear to O’Connell: He wanted to “reveal all he knew’’ and to “tell the world why peace had failed.’’ “King’s Counsel’’ is as much an apologia for the late monarch as a memoir.

The author makes no bones about his alliances, and his book argues vigorously on behalf of Hussein, characterizing the late ruler as a pursuer of peaceful relations struggling against the tide of dirty dealings in the region (not excluding US-backed Israeli actions). Readers seeking a measured, big-picture recent history of the Middle East will want to skip “King’s Counsel’’; those interested in the perspective of a brilliant foreign-policy expert reporting in the aftermath of a very specific foothold will be gratified to read O’Connell’s recollections, which are documented with the sort of restraint one associates with, well, an intelligence briefing.

Weeks before troops invaded Iraq in 2003, O’Connell received a phone call alerting him that a major Sunni leader was seeking a CIA contact. As the most natural allies of the United States, the Sunni tribes are “natural enemies of al Qaeda and the Shiite extremists.’’ O’Connell recognized the significance of a Sunni leader reaching out to the Americans, and indeed found it “inexcusable’’ that the leader did not already have a CIA contact. “In fact,’’ O’Connell writes, with a nearly visible shake of the head, “it took four years for the United States to connect with the Sunni tribes, eventually achieving enormous success against mutual enemies.’’ In the end, he determines that little progress has been made between the Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians since 1967. The moral of the story? Diplomacy is hard work, if you can get it.

Molly Young’s work has appeared in New York and n+1. She can be reached at


A Memoir of War, Espionage, and Diplomacy in the Middle East

By Jack O’Connell

With Vernon Loeb

Norton, 266 pp., $26.95