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Cia plo munich olympics 1972 { November 9 1998 }

NOVEMBER 9, 1998
By Bruce B. Auster, page 36

A curious marriage of convenience

It was delicate business, some 20 years ago, when Israeli intelligence approached the CIA with a question: Was Ali Hassan Salameh, the mastermind of the kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, an American agent? The response was noncommittal: The CIA does not answer such questions. Shortly thereafter, in January 1979, as Salameh drove to work, a car bomb ended his life.

It is hard to know whether Salameh would have been spared if the CIA had answered differently. But it is now known that the assassination robbed the United States of its chief contact inside Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization. Intelligence sources still debate whether Salameh was actually on the CIA payroll or merely served as a PLO liaison to the agency. But they agree that for 15 years beginning in the 1970s, at a time when the United States refused to recognize or negotiate with the PLO, the CIA maintained secret ties with Arafat's Fatah faction. That fact helps explain the CIA's new role as monitor of the current Mideast peace arrangements.

Dangerous. The former CIA-PLO liaison would have been politically explosive if exposed. But it benefited both sides, enhancing security for Americans stationed in Beirut and providing Arafat a diplomatic back channel to the White House. In 1976, for instance, Arafat assigned Force 17, his personal bodyguard unit commanded by Salameh, to provide security when the U.S. needed to evacuate its embassy. And until the early 1980s, the PLO tipped Americans in Beirut to planned assassinations or car-bomb attacks. "They really did provide the most important protection of the American presence," says a former intelligence official. "The cooperation unquestionably prevented a number of terrorist operations." Until 1979, the central players were Salameh and CIA officer Robert Ames. But when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, the PLO fled to Tunis. And in 1983, Ames died in the Beirut embassy bombing.

Even after those events, the PLO-CIA connection continued. The United States had pledged not to recognize or negotiate with the PLO until Arafat's group recognized Israel's right to exist and agreed to negotiations based on trading land for peace. During the Nixon, Ford, and Carter presidencies, the CIA provided an occasional channel to explore whether Arafat was ready to meet those terms. For years, the answer was always "no." During the last months of the Reagan administration in 1988, however, Secretary of State George Shultz authorized William Quandt, a former Carter administration official, to respond to a secret overture from the PLO. At a crucial juncture in those talks, Arafat used the CIA connection to check whether Quandt was really speaking for Washington. The response was "yes," and in December 1988, Arafat met America's terms and the United States agreed to an open dialogue with the PLO.

Over the years, there was one other favor Arafat asked of the CIA: Would the agency warn him if he or his deputies were targeted for assassination? He got an answer drafted by lawyers: The CIA was obliged to provide information if it knew of an imminent violation of a person's human rights. It is not known whether he ever got such a warning.–Bruce B. Auster

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