Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Good Spy

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird
Crown Publishing: 5/20/2014
Hardcover, 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307889751

The Good Spy is Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kai Bird’s compelling portrait of the remarkable life and death of one of the most important operatives in CIA history – a man who, had he lived, might have helped heal the rift between Arabs and the West.
On April 18, 1983, a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people.  The attack was a geopolitical turning point. It marked the beginning of Hezbollah as a political force, but even more important, it eliminated America’s most influential and effective intelligence officer in the Middle East – CIA operative Robert Ames.  What set Ames apart from his peers was his extraordinary ability to form deep, meaningful connections with key Arab intelligence figures. Some operatives relied on threats and subterfuge, but Ames worked by building friendships and emphasizing shared values – never more notably than with Yasir Arafat’s charismatic intelligence chief and heir apparent Ali Hassan Salameh (aka “The Red Prince”). Ames’ deepening relationship with Salameh held the potential for a lasting peace.  Within a few years, though, both men were killed by assassins, and America’s relations with the Arab world began heading down a path that culminated in 9/11, the War on Terror, and the current fog of mistrust.
Bird, who as a child lived in the Beirut Embassy and knew Ames as a neighbor when he was twelve years old, spent years researching The Good Spy.  Not only does the book draw on hours of interviews with Ames’ widow, and quotes from hundreds of Ames’ private letters, it’s woven from interviews with scores of current and former American, Israeli, and Palestinian intelligence officers as well as other players in the Middle East “Great Game.”
What emerges is a masterpiece-level narrative of the making of a CIA officer, a uniquely insightful history of twentieth-century conflict in the Middle East, and an absorbing hour-by-hour account of the Beirut Embassy bombing.  Even more impressive, Bird draws on his reporter’s skills to deliver a full dossier on the bombers and expose the shocking truth of where the attack’s mastermind resides today.

My Thoughts:

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird is a very highly recommended biography of the life of Robert Ames.

First I have to admit that I've been looking forward to reading The Good Spy for months. After reading Bird's biography of Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus,I knew this would be another biography that I simply couldn't pass on reading - and was I ever right. For those who love to delve deeper into history, especially of the turmoil in Middle East, this is a biography that simple should be read.

Robert Ames was a CIA operative and America's most capable and significant intelligence officer in the Middle East. Many of you will remember when a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983. Sixty three people were killed, including Robert Ames. This attack marked a critical moment in history when the Hezbollah became the prevailing political power in the Middle East while America lost one of our chief intelligence officers.

Robert Ames was born on March 6, 1934, in a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia. He went to La Salle University on a basketball scholarship. After this he was in the Army and happened to be assigned to Kagnew Station, which was operated by the NSA. This was when Bob Ames first discovered the world of intelligence. In 1960 he started working for the CIA. Ames became an expert on the Arabic world, including languages, history, and politics, and was naturally involved with trying to understand the conflicts in the area, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict. He was able to form beneficial friendships and bonds with people.

"He was never na├»ve about the Middle East, a cockpit of power politics. He understood the personalities and motivations of the revolutionary left in the Arab world as much as he appreciated the rituals of the Sheiks.” 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." (Location 184)

Bird writes: "Robert Clayton Ames was a very good spy. Everyone at the Central Intelligence Agency who knew him thought he was good at his work precisely because he was so very disarming and innocent. He was a classic American—idealistic and good-hearted and open as a Jimmy Stewart character. There was nothing phony about him, nothing cosmopolitan or pretentious. To the contrary, as another CIA officer later observed, he exuded a “rock-bottom American-ness that was neither Ugly nor Quiet.” Foreigners invariably liked him."(Location 212)

On a personal level, Ames was a devoted husband and father. He had converted to Catholicism and took his faith seriously. He lived a moral life. He was an intellectual who enjoyed reading. "Another CIA case officer, Sam Wyman, once asked Ames how he found the time to read books. 'Oh, I always make time to read—at least an hour a day,' Bob replied."(Location 1305) He was hardworking, curious, and idealistic. He was the perfect combination of personality traits to be a good spy.

"There was nothing complicated about the way Bob Ames learned to become a good spy. 'There was no deep trick to it,' Thomas Powers wrote of the art of intelligence. 'You had to want to know, you had to do a lot of homework, and you had to listen.' Ames was a listener. This is not to say that he listened without judgment. He listened as an American, and he was always skeptical. But he listened with a plain sense of human empathy. He listened to people who by any broad definition were easily labeled by policy makers back in Washington as terrorists." (Location 6077)

Beyond The Good Spy being a biography of Robert Ames, it is more importantly a modern history of the diplomacy and intelligence gathering in the Middle East in the 1970's to the mid-1980's.  The final chapter is chilling and should evoke a sense of outrage in most readers.

It is, perhaps, such a open, honest account of the Middle East at this time because Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird wrote The Good Spy "without the cooperation of anyone inside the CIA. Fortunately, I found more than thirty retired officers, both clandestine officers from the Directorate of Operations and analytical officers from the Directorate of Intelligence, who generously shared their memories of Bob Ames. Some of these individuals were willing to speak for the record, but many spoke not for attribution." (Location 84) He also knew Bob Ames when he was an adolescent. "He and his wife Yvonne were our next-door neighbors from 1962 to 1965 in the small U.S. consulate compound in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia."

Bird has a very helpful section of the cast of characters at the beginning of The Good Spy. As is my wont, I am always thrilled when a nonfiction book includes more. He also includes a prologue, epilogue, acknowledgments, notes, and bibliography.

The Good Spy is essential reading for anyone interested in relationships with the Middle East.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Crown Publishing for review purposes.

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