Would you be willing to hire a potential foreign intelligence agent if it meant direct access to an antagonistic, elusive foreign government? During his time in Baghdad in the 1970s, Allen Keiswetter had to make this crucial decision. After the Six Day War, Iraq severed diplomatic ties with the United States. Keiswetter and other members of the U.S. Interests Section (USINT) in Iraq had to utilize back channels to communicate with an Iraqi government led behind the scenes by an increasingly powerful Saddam Hussein. When the exceedingly overqualified son of an Iraqi diplomat, Khalid Talia, applied for a job at the USINT, his connections were too good to turn down. Keiswetter’s suspicions about Khalid’s ties with the Iraqi government were confirmed when, several months later, the new employee told Keiswetter, “I am a rose, I am a plant. You understand?”
Khalid’s relationship with the Iraqi elite was a double-edged sword. It gave the USINT access to resources, information, and channels of dialogue that would otherwise be denied. One night under the shroud of darkness, for instance, Khalid showed up outside Keiswetter’s window with an important message: the Iraqis were ready to take significant steps to improve relations with the United States. Was the message real? Or did Khalid have something to gain? Keiswetter never knew. When the Iraqi government moved the UNIST offices to a building without water, electricity, or telephone service, Khalid came to Keiswetter with a solution: obtain a visa for the Iraqi Foreign Minister so he could visit New York. That seemed to work.
Keiswetter had a distinguished and varied career in the Foreign Service. His first post was in Vietnam from 1968-1969, during the height of the war. He then worked for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs from 1972-1975. For the next decade, Keiswetter was employed at various embassies across the world. He worked in Beirut, Khartoum, Sanaa, and Riyadh, in addition to the U.S. Interests Section in Baghdad. Before retiring in 2003, he also worked for NATO and as a professor at the National War College.