The Good Spy

Since I reviewed Gray Day, I decided to fulfill – however late – my reviewer duties for a couple of other titles on espionage history before returning to William Hope Hodgson.

Review: The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, Kai Bird, 2014.Good Spy

Books about Israeli-Palestinian strife are way down on my list of interests. However, this was a book about a CIA agent who, while unknown to the world, was a major player in Middle Eastern politics for a while, so I was mildly interested.

It’s possible this book may incite some strong feelings for those who do care about those politics.

For the record, my own biases are that Israel has way too much influence in American affairs. It is not the 51st state. It has not been a staunch ally. It is capable of taking care of itself. On the other hand, I really don’t care what Israel does with their Palestinian or Arab neighbors. The necessity for America to insert itself in this conflict is non-existent in a post-Cold War era where America produces so much of its own oil.

Robert Ames, a CIA employee from 1960 to his violent death on April 18, 1983 when the United States embassy in Lebanon was bombed, was not a neutral in that conflict. He sympathized with the Palestinians. He was a romantic Arabist, a lover of the Arab street though, in his later days, he did empathize with Israeli concerns too.

The book starts on September 13, 1993 with Ames’ CIA colleagues going to his grave as a peace accord is about to be signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat at the White House. They privately tell some CIA young recruits that Ames made that moment possible. But, as the book notes, that, like every other attempt at settling the Israeli-Palestinian question, came to naught.

Bird seems to think the effort was worthwhile. Yet, it has still come to nothing. It’s hard to think that this book is not the story of an unusually talented agent who devoted his career to a futile cause. Bird acknowledges that possibility by quoting others.

I must say that, especially for someone who is not very interested in the background to this story, Bird makes Ames’ story compelling. Bird received absolutely no help from the CIA with this biography, but Ames’ former colleagues (many on record but a few hiding behind italicized pseudonyms) as well as Mossad agents, Palestinians, and Lebanese were happy to co-operate with Bird. And Bird doesn’t just quote those who agreed with Ames but those critical of him too. An amazing amount of detail was put together to provide a picture of Ames on and off duty.

Additionally, there is an unusual connection between Bird and Ames. Bird, as a young boy, met Ames when he posted to Saudi Arabia where Bird’s father served as a Foreign Service officer. To Bird, he was a handsome, affable man always happy to play basketball with the American kids, and Ames’ wife was friends with Bird’s mother. (Bird, of course, did not know until years later that Ames was not a Foreign Service officer but a CIA agent under diplomatic cover).

Ames career eventually took him from an agent in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations to a senior analyst to a man who had input in President Reagan’s speeches on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and U.S. attempts at a peace process. He became an intelligence agent who self-consciously tried to influence policy, generally considered bad practice. Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner, did not think highly of CIA field agents – in fact he fired many, but he regarded Ames highly and helped in his promotion.

Ames interest in Arab matters started with his posting, in 1951 as an Army serviceman to the highlands of Ethiopia at a CIA listening post. He started to teach himself the language. After he joined the CIA, he loved to drive around and talk with Bedouin and street Arabs. It sharpened his language skills and knowledge of Arab history and cultures. He genuinely sympathized with what he considered the Arab world’s struggle against colonialism, and he considered Israel as a colonizer. An example of what that attitude and knowledge is shown when he quashed a rumor that Russian pilots were flying planes over North Yemen planes in a civil war. After all, a body recovered from a crash had red hair according to report. Ames bluntly pointed out the pilot was an Arab returned from the haj, his hair colored with henna, a frequent occurrence in returning pilgrims.

Ames never really recruited many agents – many CIA case officers never recruit foreign agents. Ames had sources, many sources, whom he genuinely liked, but they weren’t formal agents.

The most significant of these in Lebanon was Ali Hassan Salameh. Salameh was a high ranking member of the PLO, closely tied to Arafat, and Ames knew he was involved in several acts of international terrorism though there is some dispute whether he was involved in the Black September terrorist operation at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Essentially, Salameh was an unacknowledged diplomatic channel from the U.S. government, starting with the Nixon administration, to the PLO. The CIA tried to recruit Salameh who always refused. He was willing to pass information and frank statements about PLO policies and goals, but he would not be bought off.

The Mossad operation to kill Salameh for his alleged part in the Munich Olympics incident resulted in the death of an innocent waiter in Norway and ended the revenge operation by Israel. However, after the CIA failed to explicitly list him as a US asset, the Mossad did get Salameh – and his driver, two bodyguards, a British secretary, a German nun, and two Lebanese bystanders – on November 22, 1979 with a car bomb. (Detonated by Erika Chambers, a British citizen, who was chosen because she didn’t delay – due to moral or psychological reasons or simply better reaction times isn’t clear– pushing the button unlike the men the Mossad tested.)

The book is full of violence: kidnappings, public executions, assassinations, suicide bombers, massacres in refugee camps, and good old-fashioned conventional warfare. However, Bird doesn’t dwell too much on the gory details except a detailed accounting of the bombing that killed Ames and 62 other people. It is clear is Bird is interested in memorializing the career of a man he knew briefly and providing some comfort to the Ames family.

Personally, I was interested for the background to news stories I heard in my youth.

While he doesn’t overstress it, Bird points out the moral and personal ambiguities of espionage. Did Ames become too friendly to those who supplied him information? Did he empathize too much with men he knew to be terrorists and with the Arabs in general?

Espionage involves dealing with bad people. Ames wasn’t under illusions about who he was dealing with in the PLO – though he probably was too incredulous in believing the PLO’s claim they would recognize Israel’s right to exist as anything more than a temporary concession.

Epitomizing that truth is that Ali Reza Asgari, the Iranian intelligence agent that planned the bombing that killed Ames, ended up coming to America, the guest of the CIA.


More reviews of books on espionage history are indexed here.

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