Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Wednesday, March 5, 2014: Maximum Shelf: The Good Spy

Crown: The Good Spy by Kai Bird

Crown: The Good Spy by Kai Bird

Crown: The Good Spy by Kai Bird

Crown: The Good Spy by Kai Bird

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames

by Kai Bird

On April 18, 1983, a truck loaded with explosives drove onto the compound of the United States embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, crashing into the lobby and detonating a ton of explosives. Today, it's "a largely forgotten moment in the history of America's presence in the Middle East," Kai Bird writes in The Good Spy, but one with great underlying significance--"the beginning of America's deadly encounter with a political Islamist movement."

Among the 63 men and women killed in the bombing was Robert Ames, a CIA agent who had played a pivotal role in establishing a line of communication between the United States government and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Initially, of course, that relationship was kept under wraps, and so Ames's work was unacknowledged. Years later, when President Bill Clinton brought PLO chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin together to shake hands on the White House lawn, the CIA was completely excluded from the public celebration--in response, as Bird recounts in a moving scene, a high-ranking Agency official took a group of junior agents to Ames's grave at Arlington National Cemetery to pay honor to his accomplishments and his sacrifice.

The Good Spy is a similar tribute; though it was written without any official cooperation from the CIA, more than 30 retired officers, including both agents from the former Directorate of Operations and analysts from the Directorate of Intelligence, shared their personal and professional recollections with Bird. The portrait of Robert Ames that emerges is that of "a model intelligence officer," who'd become captivated with the Arab world after a stint in the army where he'd been assigned to a Cold War listening post in equatorial Africa. He applied to the CIA after his initial efforts to join the Foreign Service failed and quickly distinguished himself with the depth of his immersion into the local cultures at his postings. "Ames had understood that a good CIA officer must have a curiosity about the foreign other--and a certain degree of empathy for their struggles," Bird explains--and it was that empathy that would clear a path for his greatest intelligence coup.

In 1969, Ames became friendly with a Lebanese businessman named Mustafa Zein, who'd studied in the United States. Though he refused to take the CIA's money to become a paid agent--Ames was never particularly good at recruitment, anyway--"he was willing to do things to advance the relationship between America and his people," so when Ames said he'd been authorized by Richard Nixon to reach out to the PLO, Zein gladly put him in touch with Ali Hassan Salameh, the head of the PLO's intelligence division.

When Ames and Salameh first met, Bird tells us, the latter was basically "a young man with a gun who believed in the righteousness of the struggle to return to his ancestral homelands in Palestine," though he was also a flamboyant playboy who would conduct his extramarital affairs in public--including, in the 1970s, a fling with a Lebanese Miss Universe. The CIA would have liked to turn him into a paid agent but, like Zein, he refused--although in his case, it was because being seen as a stooge of the Americans would have life-threatening consequences. (This would eventually cause a problem for the Agency when Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, asked if he was an intelligence asset. If they'd said no, Mossad would see fit to assassinate him; if they'd said yes, though, the Israelis would probably leak the information to sow discord among the Palestinians. "In the end," one retired spy told Bird, "it was decided that we just shouldn't reply." Salameh was killed by a Mossad car bomb in 1979.)

Bird meticulously details the development of this relationship, just as he details every aspect of Ames's life, personal as well as professional. We learn, for example, that his CIA salary forced perpetual economizing at home--when he was stationed in D.C., he tried driving a Fiat he'd brought back from his first posting in Beirut, but eventually traded it in for a Ford Pinto--and that he was planning to retire when he turned 50 in 1984, so that he could enter the private sector and make the money he'd need to put his six children through college. (Bird also mentions, as he did in his 2010 memoir Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, that he spent three years living next door to the Ameses in the 1960s, though "I just remember him as a tall, handsome man who had a very pretty young wife and baby.") Though some of Ames's former colleagues are critical of his field work, in the final assessment he's seen as an unsung hero who felt a genuine calling to his intelligence career. "The point was to influence the course of history--to create a better world," Bird says in describing his mindset--and, based on the evidence of The Good Spy, he made significant headway toward that end, until subsequent events, including the terrorist attack that took his life, made the goal of a true peace in the Middle East that much harder to achieve. --Ron Hogan

Crown, $26, hardcover, 9780307889751, May 20, 2014

Crown: The Good Spy by Kai Bird

Kai Bird: The Spy Who Lived Next Door

Kai Bird is co-author, with Martin J. Sherwin, of the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography. His other books include The Chairman: John J. McCloy, The Making of the American Establishment and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy, Brothers in Arms. A contributing editor at the Nation, Bird lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

Robert Ames lived across the street from you when you were growing up in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. When did you first realize who that neighbor was--was it right after the 1983 bombing?

I was just 13 years old when Bob Ames was our next-door neighbor in Dhahran. I thought he was a regular diplomat, like my father. Ames was then in his early 30s and Dhahran was his first posting abroad as a CIA case officer. I remember him playing basketball across the street with some of the U.S. Marines stationed on the Consulate compound. And I have memories of his pretty blonde wife and their two small children. About six years later, I spent a year at the American University of Beirut--and though I didn't know it, Ames was stationed in the U.S. embassy that year and was just beginning to cultivate his contacts in the Palestinian community. In another coincidence, when I started out as a freelance journalist, I spent a few months in 1973 in Sana'a, North Yemen--where again Ames had been stationed briefly just a year earlier.

In mid-1973 my father confided in me that Bob was actually a CIA officer. I made a mental note--but I didn't think it was a big deal. I never met Ames in my role as a journalist--though I now realize he was in Beirut again when I visited as a reporter in 1978. And then in April 1983 I read in the newspapers about the truck-bomb attack that killed him and 16 other Americans in Beirut. I was deeply moved when I heard of his death. At that time, I wanted to learn more about the circumstances and what it meant to the issue of peace in the Middle East. 

One of the strengths of The Good Spy is its comprehensive reporting. How many different sources, for example, do you call upon for a passage such as your description of the embassy bombing?

I had more than 50 sources alone for my account of the embassy bombing. These included interviews with eyewitnesses, but also court records and journalistic accounts.

This project started late in 2010 when I happened to Google "Bob Ames." After a bit of digging, I found a citation to a 2003 civil suit filed in U.S. District Court. Curious, I contacted the lawyer listed on the case. Stu Newberger explained that he had been hired by Ames's widow, Yvonne Ames, and other relatives and survivors of the April 18, 1983, Beirut embassy bombing. They had sued the Islamic Republic of Iran, charging that Tehran had ordered the bombing. Newberger won the case, and the Ames estate was awarded $38 million--but not a dime has been collected from Iran. Newberger gave me copies of the trial transcripts--and this rich court testimony convinced me that I could do a book about the embassy bombing. 

The court documents included vivid testimony from survivors of the bombing--including some detailed and often colorful accounts about what happened in the days and weeks leading up to the bombing. But I also interviewed other survivors and a few witnesses to the attack, including David Ignatius, at the time a young Wall Street Journal reporter who happened to walk out of the embassy just minutes before the truck bomb hit. I also found some declassified documents in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library that helped me to provide a context for the bombing. 

You mention David Ignatius, whose novel Agents of Innocence fictionalizes Ames's relationship-building with the PLO. How well does it hold up as a mirror of the reality of espionage?

Agents of Innocence is an amazing novel. Many of my sources said that as young recruits with the CIA they had been told to read it if they wanted to understand what life was like as a CIA case officer. When I started out on my research I went to see Ignatius, and he briefed me on what was true in the novel and what was not. Most of it is true. Ignatius is a very experienced and knowledgeable reporter--and now a very influential columnist who covers the intelligence community for the Washington Post. He was very generous with his own sources on the Ames story and encouraged me essentially to try to write a nonfictional version of Agents.

Many of your sources are retired intelligence officers. How do they (and you) deal with wanting to let the world know who Ames was, and why his work mattered, while respecting the secrecy around much of that work?

Initially, I didn't think I could write a full-blown biography of Ames, because I thought too much would be classified about his life and career. But very early in the project I learned to my pleasant surprise that all his former colleagues wanted his story to be told. One retired CIA officer led me to another source, and that source referred me to yet another source. In the end, I interviewed more than 40 retired CIA or Mossad sources. At first, I promised them all anonymity. But when I had a full draft of the story, I checked quotes with each source--and then asked if I could use their true name. Around 15 sources agreed to go on the record with their true names. In Tel Aviv one evening, a former senior Mossad officer interrupted to ask, "Is your government really going to allow you to publish all these secrets?" It was really an extraordinary treasure hunt. 

A number of Ames's former colleagues told me that I wouldn't have the full story without talking to Bob's closest friend in Beirut, a man named Mustafa. But no one thought I would be able to find him. I was told he had retired to Florida--but there was no record of him anywhere. Finally, someone gave me a cell phone number in a Middle Eastern city. I called it on Skype--and Mustafa answered. He immediately asked how I had found his number. But when he learned of my quest, he said he had been waiting to tell his story for nearly 30 years. I flew to the Middle East and spent more than 60 hours interviewing this extraordinary man. I got his life story--and the story of his fateful friendship with Bob Ames. 

How might American relations with the PLO and the Middle East have been different if Ames hadn't been killed in 1983? Or was the situation moving beyond his ability to make a difference by then?

The Israelis constantly remind us that the Middle East is a dangerous neighborhood. This is true. But it is nevertheless a real neighborhood, a community with ordinary people struggling to lead their lives. Ames was an exceptional CIA officer only because he loved the neighborhood and empathized with its people. He made friends, not enemies. So when he was killed it was a multifaceted tragedy. We don't know what might have happened had he lived. But everyone in the Agency I interviewed agreed that what he had done in the 1970s planted the seeds of what we call the "peace process." People started talking. But as we know, we still don't have a real peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. That's why I concluded that the Ames story is still unfinished. 

If there's one thing you'd like readers to take away from this book, what would it be?

Robert Ames's life story is an extraordinary window into the CIA, a topic of immense importance today to all Americans. When you read about Ames you suddenly understand that real intelligence is all about human empathy, the ability of a smart case officer to form genuine friendships with people in a dangerous part of the world. Since 9/11 we've been told that intelligence operations--and specifically technical intercept intelligence--is critical to our national security. The Good Spy will make you think twice about all this. And through Ames's life story I hope my readers will acquire a much deeper understanding of the Middle East--and just how hard it is to be a good spy. --Ron Hogan

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