The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird, New York: Crown, May 20, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0307889751, 448 pp., $20.03 (Hardcover), $10.99 (Kindle).
Robert Ames, “The Good Spy” in Kai Bird’s masterful biography, was a senior CIA officer killed in the Beirut embassy bombing in 1983. Ames was an Arab linguist and the Agency’s most senior Mideast analyst when he died. He seemed to be everywhere it mattered in those years, including as liaison with the PLO in the years when the U.S. had no official contact. In Bill Casey’s eulogy, he was “the closest thing to an irreplaceable man.”
Bird has crafted a biography that intersects with the history of the Middle East, the PLO, and Lebanon from the early 1960s to 1983. He has written the story of a man trying desperately to make a difference and to find a way forward on Israel-Palestine issues. Sadly, it is also a story — as it is today — of missed opportunities, steps backward rather than forward, and increased polarization of the combatants.
Ames would have fit well in academia, but he became instead a fine CIA covert officer. He was no organization man, maturing from shenanigans during training at the CIA’s Camp Peary to an unauthorized meeting with Yasir Arafat in 1977. (Ames wrote to his wife “headquarters would go into outer space if they learned about this.”) He established and nurtured the crucial liaison relationship with Arafat’s intelligence chief Ali Hassan Salameh that was our main channel into the PLO for years. As he advanced in his career, he craved a role in policy and was part of a small coterie of senior officials whom Secretary of State Shultz entrusted to come up with a creative peace plan after the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon in 1982. Despite his cynicism, he was optimistic that a new approach could resolve these knotty problems. And while deeply sympathetic to the Palestinians, he developed a solid respectful relationship with Mossad and strove for objectivity in his analysis
Ames had two vital Arab contacts throughout most of his career. Although it would seem hard to assess from this distance, Bird sees Ames dealing with both as friends as much as assets. One — Mustafa Zein — is a major source for this book. The other is the PLO’s intelligence chief Ali Hassan Salameh. Ames resists misguided efforts to recruit him as a paid agent, arguing that this would be a death sentence for him within the PLO. But he is powerless years later when Mossad approaches the CIA to inquire whether Salameh was a CIA “asset.” In the arcane language of spy agencies, this was a request to determine whether he could be put on Israel’s hit list. When the CIA decided not to respond yes or no to the inquiry — over Ames’s and others’ strenuous objections — they assumed they had signed his death warrant. And in fact Salameh was assassinated by a Mossad car bomb in Beirut in 1979. While Salameh had never been an “asset” in the CIA argot of a paid agent, he had been extremely valuable to the US, both as the main channel to Arafat and as a provider of security for US officials. U.S. Ambassador in Egypt Herman Eilts forthrightly told the press after the killing that Salameh had been very helpful to the U.S. and called his death “a great loss.”
The CIA comes off better in its willingness to keep Ames right where he wanted to be — in the middle of the action in the Mideast. He was posted to Yemen, Tehran, and Beirut, and even when assigned to headquarters, made lengthy TDYs back to the region. Long after his initial contact with Salameh in 1969, he stayed in touch when the relationship had been passed on to others. As Ames moved up in the Agency, becoming the first National Intelligence Officer for Near East and South Asia, and then Near East South Asia Director in the Intelligence Directorate, he never gave up contacts he had developed in Operations.
The 1983 Beirut embassy bombing has been described before but Bird’s telling is comprehensive and personalizes the tragedy. Ames was a visiting dignitary from Washington who happened to be in the embassy that day. The other 62 killed included most of the CIA station, USAID officials, Lebanese employees, and visa applicants. Bird has researched the lives of Ames’s colleagues who were killed and those who survived, and has talked to next of kin about the void left in the aftermath. Even a young David Ignatius makes an appearance, as a reporter who had left the embassy only a few minutes before the blast. Finally, Bird reviews the debate over responsibility for the truck bombing, ultimately agreeing with the conventional wisdom that it was orchestrated by the Iran Revolutionary Guards through a nascent Shi’a organization that later became Hezbollah. His last chapter reviews the birth of Hezbollah and finally the 2007 CIA-assisted defection to the US of Ali Reza Asgari, an Iranian who brought valuable secrets about his nation’s nuclear program. But Bird presents evidence that he had also been instrumental in the 1983 bombing. Bird can get no one from the U.S. government to speak on the record (or off) about the decision to resettle this defector in the US when he was guilty of the death of 63 in the embassy. “It happens,” said one CIA veteran.
Bird’s footnotes give a sense of the breadth of his research. The CIA did not respond to his requests for assistance in his project, and many of the documents — including the internal investigation of the horrific embassy bombing — remain classified 30 years after the fact. He interviewed over forty of Ames’s fellow officers, as well as his family, and had access to his many letters home to his wife. Bird also relied heavily on the memories and journals of Mustafa Zein, Ames’s friend who the U.S. used for many years as liaison with the PLO and Hezbollah.
Telling a story about an intelligence operative so deeply immersed in the tumultuous world of the PLO and the Lebanese civil war is remarkable in itself. Telling it in a way that the complicated history of the area and the shadowy working of our intelligence establishment are clear to a layman is an additional achievement. It is a fitting tribute to a man who died trying to make a difference in those worlds.