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The Power of a Talking Point: The Work of Ambassador Thomas Miller in Morocco

All too often in the State Department, people can lose hope that their efforts matter and come to believe that the main reason for their existence is simply to create an endless stream of memos, briefing materials, and government forms, and push them through the bureaucracy. It is too easy to forget that “we are a business of human beings.” In this instance, one person inserted one talking point in a memo and changed the fate of one family.

In 1972, General Mohamed Oufkir of the Moroccan military orchestrated a coup to shoot down the plane of Morocco’s King Hassan II. The attempted coup failed, and King Hassan II survived, punishing anyone suspected to be involved in the plan.  Shortly  after the incident, General Oufkir was found dead with multiple gunshot wounds, and over fifty army officers simply disappeared, imprisoned in a secret, underground prison in the Atlas Mountains.

Nearly twenty years after the failed coup, Thomas Miller, Director in the Office of North African Affairs at the State Department, was asked by a wife of one of these disappeared men to help find and encourage the release of her husband. Pressure from human rights organizations and the U.S. government led to the eventual closing of the prison and release of the remaining detainees in 1991.

In his interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in April 2010, Thomas Miller recalls the “slack” given to Morocco, a U.S. ally, and his own contributions to the release of a Moroccan man disappeared and imprisoned for 19 years. Later in his career, Ambassador Miller was appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 to be Chairman of the International Commissions on Missing Persons.

You can read about the attempted birthday coup against King Hassan II.


“We would always give them the benefit of the doubt”

MILLER:  Morocco did two things. This is very important, and this is why Morocco had a special place with us. Number one, they had a very large Jewish community, and they treated them OK. That was significant in the Arab world. Number two, when we launched the peace process from the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, Morocco was one of the few Arab countries that supported it. And this meant a lot to us.

So Morocco we would always give the benefit of the doubt, plus provision of regional facilities, plus good cooperation on other fronts. So we always cut them some slack. And I remember, on the human rights front, there were all these problems on human rights. We would call it as we see it, and the Moroccans got upset, because they expected that’s not the way friends should treat each other. But we would be pretty honest on the human rights front.

I remember one story, in particular, on human rights. I had come to the office, and a few months after I arrived in the office, I got a letter…from a lady, from a schoolteacher, in Nebraska. She told me this unbelievable story, and I didn’t know what to think.

She told me that she had been teaching in the early ‘60s, and we’re now in the late ‘80s. She had been teaching English as a young lady, as a young teacher, in Morocco, and she fell in love with a Moroccan guy in the Air Force. Just a sergeant. And they got married, and they had a kid. And this was early ‘60s. And just after she had the kid, or maybe she was pregnant, I don’t even remember, but she did have a son at some point, there was a coup against the King, and the King put down the coup….

They tried to shoot down the King’s plane….  And the King survived, and the King ordered that all the people, including the Army chief and whoever else in the Air Force, all these other people, that they be rounded up and executed. And a bunch of people were executed. A lot of people were executed.

But he also ordered that anyone who had been at all involved in any way, shape or form be arrested. And this sergeant, this Air Force sergeant, worked at the Air Force base that the rebels had taken off from. I think he was in charge of refueling or something like that. They arrested this guy.  And he had just gotten married to this young American.

“We’re not just a business of a lot of paper. We are a business of human beings.

They took these guys — and I think it was about 60 of them they arrested — they took them and they stuck them in a hole in the desert. I think it was called Tazmamart. It wasn’t a town, it wasn’t anything, it was just literally a bunch of underground dungeons they had dug out of the desert.

And the King basically said, “I don’t ever want to hear about them again. They don’t exist, as far as I am concerned.”

Over the years, I think about two-thirds of them died. They just were in this hole. It was a dungeon. And they were abused and mistreated and starved.

In 1991 the King was coming on a visit, a state visit, to the United States. This woman who had married the imprisoned Moroccan had met me, and she told me I was the first one who had even listened to her.

I did some checking, “Does anyone know, anyone in the intelligence community know, about this prison?” And there were faint rumors, but no one could ever confirm that it even existed. Her husband had disappeared. We knew that much.

So I had heard this story, and I stayed in touch with her. And the King of Morocco was coming, a couple years later, on a state visit. And I inserted, on all the talking points, of which they were voluminous, a piece about this prison. And it was a one-line throwaway for the President [George H.W. Bush] to use. And the President used it.

The King got very upset over this, and the visit finished. I got a berating from the Moroccan ambassador, “How could you embarrass our King?”

Three months later, the King ordered the survivors to be released, and this guy had survived. He was one of 19 people out of, I think, about 60, who had gone into this jail, who was still alive.

I think one of the sharpest and most poignant memories I’ll ever have in my life — not just the State Department — was when — his name was M’Barek Touil — when he and his wife came back to the States and they stopped in to visit me. And I saw this guy.

He was just like a skinny, bald, little guy. Nancy was his wife; Nancy Touil. They just stopped to thank me, and they went back to Nebraska. I stayed in touch with them for years and then lost touch with them….

It just stayed with me. I told my kids, when they were a little bit older, the story. And they still remember it to this day.

The message is don’t ever give up. The message is that people do matter. We’re not just a business of a lot of paper. We are a business of human beings. And even though this episode was infinitesimal in the shape of cosmic things, it meant a lot to the Touils and me.