WASHINGTON — The suicide bombers who struck three Western hotels in Amman, Jordan, this week also were targeting the increasingly important U.S. partnership with that country.
Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate, or GID, has surpassed Israel's Mossad as America's most effective allied counter-terrorism agency in the Middle East. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, its cooperation with the CIA has grown even closer.
The GID has aggressively hunted Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born head of the extremist group Al Qaeda in Iraq and suspected planner of Wednesday's bombings. Last year, Jordanian agents arrested several Zarqawi associates, reportedly foiling truck bomb attacks on the U.S. Embassy and government targets in Amman, the capital.
Former CIA Director R. James Woolsey called Jordan "a natural target for Al Qaeda" and Iraqi insurgents. "It's a little surprising there haven't been more attacks" against Jordan, he said.
The U.S. provides secret financial assistance to subsidize the GID's budget, former senior U.S. intelligence officials said, adding that the two intelligence agencies conduct sophisticated joint operations and routinely share information.
Jordan's intelligence partnership with the U.S. is so close, in fact, that the CIA has had technical personnel "virtually embedded" at GID headquarters, said a former CIA official in the Middle East. One former CIA official said he was allowed to roam the halls of the GID unescorted.
Most recently, Jordan has emerged as a hub for "extraordinary renditions," the controversial, covert transfer of suspected extremists from U.S. custody to foreign intelligence agencies.
GID personnel are characterized as highly capable interrogators by Frank Anderson, a former CIA Middle East division chief. "They're going to get more information [from a terrorism suspect] because they're going to know his language, his culture, his associates -- and more about the network he belongs to," he said.
But in two previously undisclosed cases, citizens of Yemen say they were detained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, then transported to Jordan and held by the GID, their lawyers said. One of the detainees said he was tortured by the Jordanian service and then handed back to American authorities.
The State Department praised Jordan for combating terrorism in one report this year and accused it of human rights abuses in another.
The latter report is particularly sensitive as the Bush administration justifies its war in Iraq, in part, as an effort to bring democracy to the Middle East. Washington's intelligence partner in Jordan has been criticized for its role in the human rights violations and in political repression.
The State Department credits cooperation between the CIA and the GID with disrupting "numerous terrorist plots" and intercepting insurgents trying to cross the Jordan-Iraq border.
But Marc Lynch, a professor at Williams College in Massachusetts and an expert on U.S.-Jordanian relations, said the Amman government "has received a free pass on human rights because it has been so useful strategically."
According to a State Department report released this year, Jordanian security agents "sometimes abuse detainees physically and verbally during detention and interrogation, and allegedly also use torture."
It said Jordan's reported torture methods include sleep deprivation, beatings on the soles of the feet, prolonged suspension with ropes in contorted positions and extended solitary confinement.
Such allegations have not hampered the CIA's collaboration with the GID.
"Jordan is at the top of our list of foreign partners," said Michael Scheuer, who resigned from the CIA last year, ending a 22-year career that included four years heading a unit tracking Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
"We have similar agendas, and they are willing to help any way they can."
Although the Israeli Mossad is commonly considered the CIA's closest ally in the region, Scheuer and others interviewed said that the GID is as capable and professional as the Mossad -- and as an Arab nation, Jordan is more effective combating predominantly Arab militant organizations.
"The GID ... has a wider reach [in the Middle East] than the Mossad," Scheuer said.
The GID, with authority to track both internal and external security threats, plays a leading role monitoring opponents of King Abdullah II's authoritarian government, including those who seek peaceful change, human rights advocates say.
The agency has arrest powers and runs a network of detention centers. Students applying to universities need a good-behavior certificate from the GID, according to the State Department human rights report. The directorate can also deny passports to citizens on national security grounds.