BEIRUT: Many Lebanese think of General Security as the administrative wing of the country’s security apparatus, responsible for stamping passports at border crossings, giving residence permits to foreigners and censoring movies in the cinemas. Nicholas Nassif would disagree with this assessment.
In his book “State Secret, Chapters in the History of the General Security, 1945-1977,” Nassif argues that the institution’s 60-odd-year history bears witness to the critical role its chiefs have assumed in defending the country’s national security.
The first monograph to be produced on the subject, Nassif’s book is closer to an homage than a critical study. The Al-Akhbar journalist was commissioned to write it by Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, General Security’s present director-general, the research was facilitated by a committee of General Security officers, and the book has been published by the General Directorate of General Security.
It took Nassif 16 months to complete the project.
“[Ibrahim] asked me to author the book, and I said OK,” Nassif told The Daily Star. “He made the request because the General Security has no archive. ... He was interested in having a book that preserves the memory of the General Security.”
With the outbreak of Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War, General Security personnel – fearing that Palestinian fighters could reach their headquarters then in Mathaf – destroyed most of the institution’s archived documents.
Nassif speculated that Ibrahim chose him to handle this task because he had already written a history of Army Intelligence, better known as the Deuxieme Bureau.
Weighing in at 496 pages, Nassif’s “State Secret” traces the history of the General Security through the administrations of five heads – Edward Abu Jaoude, Farid Shihab, Toufic Jalbout, Joseph Salameh and Antoine Dahdah – from its formation in 1945 till 1977.
All five commanders were close to the successive presidents who appointed them, and the book touches on the role and performance of the security body during the mandates of these leaders: Beshara Khoury, Camille Chamoun, Fouad Shihab, Charles Helou and Suleiman Franjieh.
Nassif explains how General Security played a prominent role in the intelligence and security apparatus in certain periods, and more minor roles during others, depending on how much power the force was given, how strong the sitting president was and whether other security agencies infringed upon its prerogatives.
“I tried to explain,” Nassif said, “that General Security’s role was more a security role than an administrative one.”
Under Abu Jaoude, the first head of the General Security, the body’s security role was limited. Although its prerogatives included gathering information and carrying out investigations, in practice these tasks were handled by the judicial police.
General Security’s role changed completely during Farid Shihab’s tenure. Serving under presidents Khoury and Chamoun, Shihab held the post from 1948 to 1958, longer than any other chief.
With his strong personality and extensive experience in intelligence and security work – gained during his time as head of the judicial police – Shihab boosted General Security’s intelligence activities.
The establishment was given additional powers, enabling it to combat espionage and communicate with international crime enforcement agency Interpol.
“It gained its prestige when it was viewed as the security agency of the president,” Nassif writes in his book. Shihab coordinated with security agencies in states such as Iran, Iraq, and Jordan. Though also close to the president, the Deuxieme Bureau played a minimal role at that time.
Appointed by President Fouad Shihab, Toufic Jalbout, Farid Shihab’s successor, also played a prominent role on the security front. Over the course of several meetings with Maj. Gen. Mohammad Jarrah, Syria’s head of General Security, Jalbout laid the foundations for security cooperation with Lebanon’s neighbor.
Jalbout also worked on organizing General Security, turning it into a proper institution. Before Jalbout came to office, Nassif explains, General Security’s ability to carry out investigations and intelligence activities depended on its director’s strength of personality. The first article of Decree 139, however, issued by the government in June 1959, officially allowed General Security to gather “political, economic and social information” for the government.
The Deuxieme Bureau rose to prominence during the term of President Shihab, particularly following the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s failed coup attempt in December 1961. The agency gained significant influence, transcending its official powers and interfering in politics in a bid to protect the political system. It infringed upon the prerogatives of the General Security when it began to monitor foreigners on Lebanese soil.
The Deuxieme Bureau preserved its stature and influence during the tenure of President Helou. This prompted Joseph Salameh, Jalbout’s successor, to refrain from competing with it for influence. Salameh’s principal achievement lies in transforming General Security into a general directorate.
Elected in 1970, President Franjieh ended the Deuxieme Bureau’s meddling in politics and appointed Antoine Dahdah as director-general of General Security, whose security prerogatives he worked to restore. Dahdah’s achievements included increasing the number of employees from 650 to 1155, hiring many university graduates, establishing a separate department for informers and recruiting female officers.
Like Jalbout before him, Dahdah oversaw the body’s security cooperation with Damascus, paying several visits to Syria to meet with Brig. Hikmat Shihabi, the then-head of Syrian Army Intelligence.
Dahdah’s efforts to develop the general directorate were hindered by the outbreak of Lebanon’s Civil War, which led to the division and consequent weakening of General Security.
Nassif said he tried to explain how the General Security chief’s effectiveness mirrored that of the president who appointed him: “Under a strong president, there was a strong head of General Security,” he said, “and the chief of General Security was hesitant when the president was hesitant.”
The administrative reshuffling and appointments of five director-generals is not the stuff of spy thrillers. Yet Nassif’s account features numerous interesting and exciting details.
For example, he mentions an unnamed Kataeb Party official who worked as one of Dahdah’s informants. A portion of the chapter on Farid Shihab’s tenure is based on General Security wiretaps, of which he kept records among his personal files. Indeed, at the end of each chapter, a few pages are devoted to rare General Security documents, including reports on politicians’ secretly recorded phone conversations.
Enthusiasts of Lebanon’s relatively recent history may be intrigued by the information collected from these wiretaps, which Nassif says are being published for the first time. The subjects include opposition leaders’ conversations during strikes held to force President Khoury to resign in 1952, and again during the events of 1958.
Nassif said he gathered photocopies of some of the rare documents from retired General Security employees he interviewed while researching his book. In addition to interviews, Nassif relied on newspapers, magazines and books for his extensive research.
Skeptics might be suspicious of the veracity of a study commissioned by the very security agency it is about. But Nassif said General Security did not examine the content of the book while he was writing, only after it was published, adding the General Security committee that aided his research had provided logistical support only.
Nicholas Nassif’s “State Secret, Chapters in the History of the General Security, 1945-1977,” 2013, is published, in Arabic by the General Directorate of General Security and is available in Beirut area bookshops.