New book gives credence to US ambassador’s claim that Israel tried to assassinate him in 1980
John Gunther Dean, now 92, and a former American ambassador to five countries, has long maintained that Israel was behind his attempted assassination on August 28, 1980, in a suburb of Beirut, which was attributed to a rightwing Lebanese group. Dean and his wife and daughter and son-in-law were in a motorcade and narrowly escaped serious injury.
Dean said that he was targeted because he was doing something regarded as antithetical to Israel’s interest: consulting with the Palestine Liberation Organization and its head, Yasser Arafat, at a time when such contacts were the third rail in US politics. He was also outspokenly critical of Israeli attacks on Lebanon.
A new book offers backing to Dean’s claim. But while that book has been highly-publicized, the question of whether Israel attacked our ambassador has gotten no attention in the press. That is not a surprise; for Dean has asserted that the case itself was never thoroughly investigated by the U.S. government.
Let’s begin this story where I first heard about it, from historian Remi Brulin’s twitter thread on May 30:
“On August 28, 1980, the three-car motorcade of John Gunther Dean, the American Ambassador to Lebanon, was attacked on the motorway by several assailants armed with automatic rifles as well as light anti-tank weapons or LAWs. The ambassador and his wife escaped unscathed.
“This attack is in RAND’s ‘terrorism’ database. Entry states that ‘responsibility for attack was later claimed by the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners, a shadowy right-wing group.’ Various media outlets at the time reported on FLLF taking credit for the attack…
“Over the years Ambassador Dean has repeatedly argued that Israel was behind the August 1980 attempt on his life. In an interview for the Oral History Project in September 2000, he explained how the Lebanese Intelligence services had managed to retrieve the empty canisters of two of the light anti-tank weapons (LAWs) that had been used during the attack on his motorcade and, during raiding a house by the intersection where the assault had taken place, found 8 more. Dean collected the numbers on the 10 missiles & sent them to Washington to be traced.
“Three weeks (and one angry phone call) later, the US Ambassador finally learned ‘where the light anti-tank weapons came from, where they were shipped to, on what date, who paid for them, and when they got to their destination.’
“The LAWs had been manufactured in the US and ‘were sold and shipped to Israel in 1974.’ In this interview, Dean further states that he “did find out a great deal about this incident’ over the following years, and calls this assassination attempt ‘one of the more unsavory episodes in our Middle Eastern history’ and ends by noting that ‘our Ambassador to Israel, Sam Lewis, took up this matter with the Israeli authorities.’
“Dean concludes: ‘I know as surely as I know anything that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, was somehow involved in the attack. Undoubtedly using a proxy, our ally Israel had tried to kill me.’ [Haaretz covered Dean’s claim, made in his 2009 autobiography; so did The Nation]
“All of this has been known for years, although it is very rarely discussed in the US media. When discussed, Dean’s assertions/accusations are dismissed as conspiracy theories.
“In January however, a book was published that appears to reinforce the plausibility of Dean’s position. The book is Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First. It has received rave reviews in the US press, and its author has been interviewed countless times since the book was published. The book focuses on Israeli ‘targeted assassinations’ and it contains one truly remarkable revelation.
“In 1979, [Rafael] Eitan and [Meir] Dagan [both brass in the Israel Defense Forces] created the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners, and ran that fictitious group from 1979 to 1983. In 1981 and 1982, Ariel Sharon used that Front to conduct a series of indiscriminate car bombings that killed hundreds of civilians.
“The objective of this massive ‘terrorist’ car bombing campaign was to ‘sow chaos’ amongst the Palestinian & Lebanese civilian population” and, in 1981-82, to provoke the PLO into resorting to ‘terrorism,’ thus providing Israel with an excuse to invade Lebanon.
“The FLLF operation is described in great details in Bergman’s book. His account is based solely on first hand accounts from Israeli officials involved in the operation or who were aware of it at the time. It is also described in detail in my article here [in Mondoweiss in May: The remarkable disappearing act of Israel’s car-bombing campaign in Lebanon or: What we (do not) talk about when we talk about ‘terrorism’].
“As I show in this article, not a SINGLE review of Bergman’s book in the US media has mentioned the FLLF operation. Nor has it been mentioned in a SINGLE of the countless interviews he has given on the topic over the last few months. The US media has thus been fully silent about the fact that Israeli officials directed a major & fully indiscriminate car bombing campaign that killed 100s of civilians in Lebanon. This silence also means that the US media has failed to notice the possible implications of this revelation about the Dean case.
“Bergman himself does not mention the assassination attempt against Dean. But we know that the FLLF took credit for this attack at the time. That Dean’s own investigation pointed to Israel & to its Lebanese proxies. And we now know that the FLLF was CREATED and RUN by Israel.
“None of this is absolutely conclusive, of course. Nonetheless, this topic might warrant investigation from US journalists (who might also want to write about the FLLF car bombing campaign, ie about Israeli officials resorting to ‘terrorism.’”
Brulin subsequently added this important comment:
Bergman does note on several occasions in his book that he is not allowed to write and talk about a lot of the operations that his sources talked to him about. I wonder if this FLLF operation vs Dean is one of those.
Let us add some details and context. Dean was born to a Jewish family in Germany in 1926 and escaped the Holocaust to the United States in 1938, later graduating from a Kansas City high school. It goes without saying that being ambassador to five countries, Cambodia, Denmark, Lebanon, Thailand and India, is a stellar career in foreign service.
I reached out to Dean and did not hear from him, but in his oral history, the ambassador says that the attack was a “horrible experience” that scarred his daughter.
The road at that stretch was wide and a Mercedes car was parked below a small hill overlooking the road. As we turned, our convoy took 21 rifle bullets and two grenades anti-tank fired against the car I was in. My wife threw herself on top of me and said: “Get your head down” because I was trying to look out and was stunned by the “fireworks”. When you have these light anti-tank weapons (LAWs) explode, there are a lot of sparks and explosions. The two LAWs fired at my car bounced off the rear of the car. I also noticed that on the window of my armored car there were some shots all very well centered where I was sitting, but they had not penetrated because the plastic windows were bullet-proof.
In his autobiography Danger Zones, Dean says he urged the State Department to investigate, but: “No matter how hard I tried, I could not get a straight answer from the State Department about what the U.S. had discovered in its investigations… I was simply told to resume my duties as ambassador. That was not so easy when I learned what the Lebanese intelligence agency found out [using the numbers on the weapons].”
Dean says he was clearly understood to be an enemy of Israel because on repeated occasions he had publicly condemned Israel’s attacks on Lebanon’s borders and air space, a stance the State Department usually did not take.
Scurrilous attacks on me in the Israeli Knesset and the Israeli press just prior to the assassination attempt indicate that the Israeli authorities were unhappy with the activist role I played in Lebanon, defending Lebanese sovereignty and maintaining an active relationship with the PLO–the very policies I was given to pursue by the president of the United States. The venomous talk in the Israeli Knesset by the right-wing parties portrayed me as a tool of the Palestinians. Because I was willing, even eager, to talk with all the factions in Lebanon’s civil war, I was suspected of being anti-Israel.
Dean said he had a “close working relationship” with the PLO– including calling on Yasser Arafat to help broker the release of 13 of 66 American hostages held by Iranians in Tehran in November 1979, those 13 being the women and African-Americans. “On a number of occasions the PLO helped me to get Americans released… American authorities considered the PLO a valid interlocutor for discussing ways of finding a nonmilitary solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
At that time, the PLO was verboten in official policy circles. Andrew Young was forced to resign as Jimmy Carter’s ambassador to the U.N. in 1979 after the Israelis leaked the fact that he had met with a representative of the PLO. In 1977, Ted Koppel and Marvin Kalb wrote a thriller that turned on a US official having a supersecret meeting with a fictitious Palestinian group, and it leaking and the official being charged with betraying Israel. In 1976, the dissident Jewish peace group Breira came apart after Wolf Blitzer, who was at the time also working for the Israel lobby group AIPAC, reported in the Jerusalem Post that Breira members had met with PLO officials.
Dean had a reputation for being free-thinking in Washington circles. In 1988, when Dean was ambassador to India, Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq died in Pakistan when his plane was sabotaged. Dean maintained that Israel was behind the assassination because it did not want Pakistan to obtain nuclear weapons, which it was then developing. Dean’s speculation was based in part on the fact that pro-Israel congressmen (Stephen Solarz and Tom Lantos) had visited him in New Delhi and pressed him to support Israel’s ally India over Pakistan and to seek to thwart Pakistan’s path toward nukes.
“The more I pushed for answers, the more officials from the Reagan administration pushed back,” he wrote. Within a year, Dean, 63, retired amid official questions about his sanity under “strain.” “The department’s first thought was to send me to an asylum.” Instead he was sent to Switzerland for “recuperation,” he writes in his autobiography. “This was the kind of technique that the Stalinist regime used to silence its critics in the Soviet Union.”
Ronen Bergman’s new book on the Israeli assassination and terrorism campaign contains no reference to the John Gunther Dean attack. I asked him via a twitter message why he had left it out, noting that his revelation about Israeli security officials establishing the Front for the Liberation of Lebanon from Foreigners gives credence to Dean’s claim. He did not respond.
The Israeli investigative reporter is now working for the New York Times, and lately reported in the Times on the killing of a Syrian rocket scientist in a car bomb attack in northwestern Syria on the night of August 4, evidently by Israel.
P.S. The US government has had a miserable record of investigating known Israeli attacks on Americans– on the USS Liberty in 1967 and Rachel Corrie in 2003.
Thanks to Donald Johnson.