A Daughter of Beirut Recovers the Memory of Her Father, Lost to Espionage at the Dawn of the Modern Oil Age

Have you ever put down a Tom Clancy novel and wondered what the work of a real spy is like?

Charlotte Dennett’s new book, “The Crash of Flight 3804: A Lost Spy, a Daughter’s Quest, and the Deadly Politics of the Great Game for Oil” provides a riveting, personal glimpse of what this world was about at a pivotal time in postwar WW II history.

Charlotte’s father Daniel Dennett was from the world of academia. He loved history and language. His peers regarded him as brilliantly erudite. He taught at the American University in Beirut, Lebanon, during the early 1930s, and returned home in 1937 to complete a PhD in Islamic Studies.

In 1943, this scholar was recruited to “serve as cultural attaché at the US Legation in Beirut”. In fact, his job was to oversee intelligence operations for The Office of Strategic Services and its post-war successor, the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) in the Middle East.

When Dennett arrived in Beirut, most of the Nazis had been eliminated. A new geo-strategic landscape was emerging, as former allies competed over control of the burgeoning Middle East oil reserves. Instead, he spied on the British, the French and the Soviets.

The British were still the main overseers of much of the Middle East. They wanted to protect their concessions from both Soviet and American encroachment. The Americans had established themselves in the oil rich area of eastern Saudi Arabia. To reach markets in war-torn Europe, they proposed the creation of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, or TAPLINE, to transport oil overland to the Mediterranean.

There were two options for the Mediterranean terminal. Haifa, Palestine, was considered the most efficient, but Palestine was besieged with political instability as Jews attempted to overthrow the British Mandate. The Saudis did not want the TAPLINE terminating in what was to become Israel. The other option, favored by Dennett, was Sidon, in southern Lebanon.

By March, 1947, Dennett had completed this top secret mission to Saudi Arabia to determine the TAPLINE route and was sent on to Ethiopia, whose southeastern Ogaden was rich with major oil deposits. The U.S.’s Sinclair Oil was actively exploring the area. Dennett, along with the U.S. petroleum attaché and a communications specialist, were to meet with Sinclair officials in Addis Ababa. They never made it: their plane crashed into a mountain, killing all six on board.

Daniel Dennett’s daughter Charlotte was six weeks old at the time.

Charlotte’s quest

Growing up, Charlotte heard stories about her dad and always knew that he was a spy, without thinking much about it. When she returned to the States in 1975 after a two year stint as a Middle East reporter, it occurred to her that she had been following in her father’s footsteps. At a Christmas family get-together, she recalled that there was a steamer trunk in the attic that she had noticed as a child. She ran up the stairs, and with considerable apprehension, pried it open. To her amazement, she discovered a scrap book full of her father’s letters – including his last letter home and his last official report concerning the Middle East. This discovery launched her into a decades long crusade to uncover the forces behind her dad’s demise.

Her quest began in the National Archives. While there, archivists introduced her to a former spy who told her “Oh, Dan Dennett, what a loss. Of course, I know about the plane crash. We always thought it was sabotage but couldn’t prove it”. After years of unanswered requests for information, she sued the CIA for hundreds of documents, but they were heavily redacted and they stopped altogether from the period during and after the crash.

This only steadied her resolve. Charlotte began to delve deeply into the geo-strategic context within which Dennett was operating. It wasn’t long before the name of the most famous 20th century spy and double agent cropped up: Kim Philby.

Philby had been assigned by Britain’s MI 6 intelligence corps to Istanbul, Turkey in 1946 and was head of Middle East counterintelligence. This made him Dennett’s direct counterpart. They were surely aware of each other, as Philby had tutored all OSS officers in spycraft in London; they were even likely working together, sharing valuable information. Yet there was not even the faintest hint in the heavily redacted CIA records that Philby existed.

Philby’s appointment came six weeks before the announcement of The Truman Doctrine, designed to contain Soviet expansion. Turkey, the bridge between Western Europe and the Middle East and its oil, was a hot Soviet intelligence target. As a double agent, Philby had to prove his worth to the British with information about the Russian and the Americans, while providing information to the Russians on both the British and the Americans to prove his loyalty. The Soviets had already penetrated Beirut, and were alarmed over the construction of TAPLINE, fearing that this would lead to the establishment of U.S. military power in the Middle East. The British, for their part, also feared America’s control growing over the rest of the Arabian peninsula and beyond and were deeply resentful of America’s meddling in Ethiopia.

Britain then controlled Ethiopia’s resources, its military, its foreign policy, its communications, even its airspace. With Sinclair Oil obtaining an exclusive oil concession and promoting the establishment of a TWA-managed Ethiopian Airlines, what would Philby have revealed to the Soviets and the British about Dennett’s activities?

Who Did It?

There will be no spoilers here: suffice to say that the British, the Russians, and members of the Zionist Irgun (who in March 1947 escaped from a British prison in neighboring Eritrea into Ethiopia) each had reasons to get Dennett out of the way. As U.S. policymakers were themselves divided on the question of a Jewish state, Americans may have played a role.

(Dennett’s closest friend in Lebanon, a Druze prince named Najib Alamuddin, insisted that Dennett was killed by “one of his own”.)

With that said, her book stands on the shoulders of years of meticulous research. The investigation was helped along by prior work she did with her husband, Gerard Colby, on another tome, “Thy Will Be Done”, a similarly exhaustive look into the role of the Rockefellers and evangelical organizations in the genocide of indigenous populations in the Amazon in an effort to extract oil and gas. Charlotte weaves this information to other events spanning regions and decades that will challenge and surprise you, and provides the reader with questions about the kind of world we have built for ourselves consequential to the forces that led to her father’s death and the price we have paid and will continue to pay, especially with the rapidly oncoming climate crisis.

The CIA Reexamines Its Own Memory

The CIA honors those who gave their lives in service with a star on a “Wall of Honor” in its lobby. Dennett, having died 6 months before the CIG became the CIA, was missing from this wall. Coincidentally, in the spring of 2019, as Charlotte was completing her book, the CIA rectified what it considered an “amnesia” and honored Dennett as its “First Fallen Star” at its annual ceremony commemorating fallen heroes, adding Dennett’s star to the wall.

Charlotte was invited to the ceremony and spent the day at Langley, where she met with “Bloody” Gina Haspel, the CIA’s director. Charlotte showed Haspel a heavily redacted 1944 “Analysis of Work” by Dennett and asked for the redactions to be removed. Gina promised that she would get on it and, while earnestly shaking Charlotte’s hand, encouraged her to “keep at it”. Charlotte wondered what Haspel actually meant by that. Six months later, Charlotte received a “clean,” declassified copy of her father’s Analysis.

Worldviews in Conflict?

At a meeting to prepare for this ceremony, a CIA officer asked Charlotte , “You’re smart, curious, and fearless, all qualities that we look for when we recruit. Why didn’t you ever come to work for us?”

It is the child that Dennett barely knew as a tiny infant – Charlotte, the youngest of three – whose efforts resuscitated the memory of his work and life. One wonders what they might have had to say to each other had he survived.

She does mention Dennett’s statement before an academic audience in 1942, “God help us if we ever send troops into the Middle East” and she recalls her father’s sensitivity to Arab nationalism, which he gained from teaching at the American University of Beirut. Beyond this, she sheds little light on her father’s political orientation other than his hating of fascism and his having deep reservations over the partitioning of Palestine.

As for Charlotte, given the fact that her friends and colleagues must have gotten a chuckle out of her getting feted by the CIA, one gets the sense that she is sometimes holding back. There are no outbursts such as “Dad, what were you thinking?” These days even breathing is political: maybe the author was bending over backward to guard against polemical tangents and chose to impose strict journalistic instincts, stick to what she knows, leave the loose threads dangling and the rest unsaid. In the end, it gives the facts room to breathe and leaves them for the reader to ponder over and talk about as they go through this remarkable and ultimately heartrending story, a story that should make you forget that there ever was this other writer named Tom Clancy.

Michael Lebron is a writer living in New York.