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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 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 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 911 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 uotes 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 uniuely insightful history of twentieth century conflict in the Middle East and an absorbing hour by hour account of the Beirut Embassy bombing  Even 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


10 thoughts on “The Good Spy The Life and Death of Robert Ames

  1. says:

    ”People expect a revolutionary to be a miserable looking shabby creature dressed in rags That’s the wrong notionAs the Arabic saying goes Better a reputation of opulence than a reputation of misery” Ali Hassan SalamehFrom the moment that Robert Ames set foot in the Middle East he fell in love with it He loved the language He loved the culture He loved the people The reason he was in the Middle East was because the United States wanted to learn about the region and also become a player in the ever changing politics Robert Ames was sometimes passed over for promotion because he was deemed too bookish or too intellectual ERRGGHHWe are always the big goofy well meaning naive kid that has to get knocked down on the play ground several times before we start to realize that this is no game there is no play no holding of hands singing kum ba yah Beirut was a web of loose alliances with changing causes and shifting loyalties Everyone expects you to pick a side Neutral never means neutral to these groups There are only enemies and friends Beirut is at the heart of everything She is the mistress that everyone desires The goddess everyone wants to call their own Lebanon is a multisectarian country with Sunnis predominantly along the coasts and Shias in the South but when the French colonial powers set up the government they placed the pro western Maronite Christians in control When the state of Israel is created hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinians end up in Lebanon tilting the balance of power even further in favor of Muslim control Do you feel the cauldron starting to stir? Of course the Cold War doesn’t help matters as the Western Powers and the Soviet Union are picking their favorite splinter groups to support providing them with training supplies and encouraging things to destabilize All believing of course that their side will eventually be triumphant Ames is not the best recruiter not in the technical sense that makes the CIA happy The CIA doesn’t consider a person theirs unless that person is taking money lots of money Ames because of his true passion for Arabic culture is able to make friends make connections all without using money as the main incentive He doesn’t want power over his contacts He wants friendships and long term relationships built on mutual trust Yasir Arafat after a particularly good piece of intel is passed to them through Ames says “Okay whatever Bob says from now on it is like it is written in the Koran” Lebanese Prime Minister Saeb Salam Salameh and Yasir ArafatAli Hassan Salameh The Red Prince is the soul of the Palestinian movement He is dynamic intelligent and reckless and in many ways a political force than his boss Arafat He was destined to be the leader of the movement He lived large as you can see from the uote at the beginning of this review his philosophy was about showing the world just how successful he is He seduced German reporters wives of diplomats and Lebanese women from prominent families making friends and enemies in eual measure He was a wild card unstable but also the man in the middle of everything happening Mustafa Zein a man who believed in America dreamed about America and proved to be the best friend the Americans ever made in Lebanon introduced Robert Ames to Salameh It was an interesting relationship with the serious bookish faithful family man on one side and the flamboyant playboy on the other When Salameh took Georgina Rizk the Lebanese Miss Universe winner as his second wife Ames refused to meet him at her apartment or with her even in the room anywhere Ames disapproved of the relationship with Rizk for a number of reason but one being that he really liked and respected Salameh’s first wife Georgina Rizk the great Lebanese beauty who fell in love with Salameh She is the only woman from the Middle East to win Miss Universe Salameh was dangerous for a lot of reasons The Israelis were uneasy about him because they realized he was the window to the West He was the very man that might be capable of brokering a deal with the Americans that would see Arafat standing in the White House In 1972 everything changes During the Munich games a band of Palestinian militants calling themselves Black September kidnapped and killed eleven Israeli athletes and officials at the Olympic games The worst publicity event in the history of the world It wasn’t supposed to go that way They were supposed to hold hostages to get Palestinians languishing in Israeli prison cells released in exchange for the Olympic athletics When their position is stormed they spray the hostages with machine gun fire and grenades The sympathy the world had for the Palestinian cause went cold Golda Meir launches Operation Wrath of God Mossad over the next few years systematically hunts down anyone even peripherally involved with Black September One of their primary targets is Salameh Even Ames with his influence will not be able to save him In 1982 the Israelis invaded Lebanon to root out the Palestine Liberation Organization PLO The Palestinians withdrew Janet Lee Stevens an American activist known as The Little Drummer Girl who also inspired the book by John Le Carre pleaded with Arafat not to evacuate his men She knew from her own sources that things could go very very wrong They did The Israelis surrounded the Palestinian camps at Sabra and Shantila camps that were full of mostly women children and old men The Phalange representatives of the Maronite Christians came into the camps and systematically raped and killed thousands The Israelis routinely launched flares that allowed the Christians better lighting for their butchery So why? The Lebanese president elect Bachir Gemayel had been assassinated The Phalange wrongly assumed the Palestinians were behind it As it turned out Syrians were the culprits It is hard to fathom how anyone could convince themselves that this was an appropriate response to the death of one man The fact that the Israelis blocked the exits and were complicit in these massacres makes me nauseous Even imagining the discussions and handshakes that had to happen while decisions are made to allow this to happen is enough to make me want to be a new species of human being unrelated to anyone who could actually decide that torturing and killing these innocent people was acceptable In 1983 a pro Iranian group called the Islamic Jihad Organization convinced a young man to drive a pickup truck loaded with 2000 pounds of explosives into the US Embassy and hit the detonator This is considered by many to be the dividing line in the United States relationship with the Middle East This is the moment when there is a perception change by Arabs regarding the United States’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs This happened in April In October of the same year was also the deadly attack on the Beirut Barracks of American and French servicemen killing 299 Beirut Embassy after the bombingDavid Ignatius was at the Beirut embassy on the morning of the attack He was researching a book that was to be called Agents of Innocence Robert Ames was the basis for his hero Mustafa Zein; and of course Salameh are also primary characters in the book masuerading under pseudonyms Fortunately for Ignatius he left the Embassy not long before that fateful explosive moment when relations between the Middle East and the United States took a dramatic turn Mustafa Zein an ardent supporter of American involvement in the Palestinian issue He believed in the Agents of InnocenceRobert Ames was also at the Embassy that day and so was the Little Drummer Girl They were among the seventeen Americans who perished Most of the rest of the 63 victims were Lebanese It became just an event among many atrocious events during the Lebanese Civil War but the ramifications continue to be felt today I was in some ways fortunate that I read Agents of Innocence before reading this book because I had already been introduced by Ignatius to a number of people that gave me a broader base of identification with the evolving events covered by this book Bird introduces the reader to a lot of people and to a long list of splinter groups which can become overwhelming Of course there is much to the story than what I chose to cover here As Ignatius led me to Kai Bird now Bird has lead me to reading the Little Drummer Girl by John Le Carre Even now I’m not sure how I feel about the events that continue to swirl around Beirut I feel sympathy for the people that love that city and have seen it destroyed by invasion civil war rocket fire and ideology I hope to see the day when it becomes the progressive tolerant society it was on the road to becoming before these series of disasters turned it into the center of a maelstrom If you wish to see of my most recent book and movie reviews visit also have a Facebook blogger page at


  2. says:

    “You are interested in a person not in life and people die or leave usBut if you are interested in life it never lets you down I am interested in the blueness of the cheese You don’t do crosswords do you Mr Wormold? I do and they are like people one reaches an end I can finish any crossword within an hour but I have a discovery concerned with the blueness of cheese that will never come to a conclusion” Graham Greene Our Man in HavanaI received Kai Bird’s The Good Spy The Life and Death of Robert Ames as a gift Initially I didn't uite know what to make of it If we’re being honest I suppose I was momentarily confused Robert Ames? The name didn't immediately ring a bell That was the CIA officer who turned out to be a KGB mole right? I asked myself And the title is meant to be ironic? All wrong of course This book is indeed about the CIA and it’s about a spy but there is nothing ironic about the title and Robert Ames as opposed to Aldrich never betrayed his country To the contrary he served it long and well to the best of his abilities right up to the day when he was killed in the Beirut Embassy bombing of April 18 1983 I doubt I’m the only one who had never heard of Robert Ames before cracking the cover of this biography I also doubt I’m the only one who has only a fleeting notion of the Beirut Embassy bombing or the bloody Lebanese Civil War that preceded it For that reason alone The Good Spy is worth tackling even if it is far from perfect The Good Spy feels like two different books rolled uncomfortably into one One of these books is a standard cradle to grave biography of Ames The other is a lucid intro to the unraveling of the Middle East following the Second World War focused primarily on the rise of Yasir Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization As a biography I found The Good Spy rather thin and listless; as a history of American interventions into the conflicts of the Middle East I found it rather fascinating The early going is a pretty slow trudge as Bird details the upbringing and early life of Robert Ames These sections before he joins the CIA and becomes part of the Middle East Directorate of Operations are rather dull Too often Bird seems to be listing facts instead of using facts to derive meaning Ames was born on this date He went to this school He liked basketball He went into the Army He was posted here It goes on like this At this point however I should add that I have a rather high bar for biographies Having read Caro and Morris and Chernow I expect a certain level of uality If I simply wanted a collection of tidbits laid out in chronological order I’d read Ames’ wiki A good biography brings the subject to life so that you understand them from the inside out I never got that here Not even close Part of the issue I think is in the way this was researched Bird says at the outset that his chief sources of information are the interviews he conducted with people who knew Ames some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity He tried to get access from the CIA but they rebuffed him and a lot of documentary evidence remains classified in this era of leaks I’m surprised Bird wasn’t able to turn up Practically speaking this means that Bird is relying on people’s memories long after the events they are relating took place The result is that Ames is often spoken of and described in vague terms and rosy platitudes “He was a great guy” for example or “he was a loving father” or “he was an excellent operative” These are conclusions that don’t give me any idea of what Ames was actually like Why was he a great guy? What made him a great operative? Too often these uestions aren’t answered This opaue picture gets really frustrating when it comes to Ames’ career The title of the book led me to believe that I’d get some idea of how spycraft works in reality as opposed to a novel by Greene or Le Carré Yet despite all the statements on how Ames was a such a fine clandestine officer Bird never explains what that means in real terms What made him so good? I’m assuming it takes than a wig funny glasses and a fake mustache But maybe that’s the key Who knows? The Good Spy certainly didn't enlighten meIn any event my waning interest got a boost about one hundred in out of 355 pages of text This is when Ames develops a “back channel” to the PLO by making the acuaintance of Ali Hassan Salameh Salameh is a captivating character If you’ve read anything about the Israeli hit suads following the 1972 Munich massacre or if you’ve seen the film Munich you have probably heard of Salameh The Israelis fingered him as a planner of the disastrous kidnappings though it is likely he wasn’t involved That did not make him an innocent as he was connected to a number of other terrorist plots Despite being a wanted man Salameh did not hide in a cave or Pakistani safe house Instead he lived the high life driving fast cars spending big dollars and even dating Lebanon’s only Miss Universe winner Georgina RizkAccording to Bird Ames’ relationship with Salameh and by extension Arafat helped bring the PLO “out of the cold” What that actually means is never fully developed at least in my opinion But in delineating Ames’ ties to Salameh and also to Mustafa Zein a Lebanese contact who believed in America’s potential for good Bird provides a powerful look at the roads taken and not taken towards a lasting peace in the Middle East In the most engrossing portions of The Good Spy Bird gives a propulsive rundown of a Middle East wracked by war and laced with cultural and religious schisms He narrates the expulsion of the PLO from Jordan which led to the formation of the Black September terrorist organization Black September was responsible for the ’72 Olympic massacre which has to be counted among the all time backfires as it turned world opinion against the PLO Bird covers Operation Wrath of God the unrelenting campaign of assassination undertaken by Mossad to destroy those involved in Munich This proved to be a friction point between Israel and the US since the CIA was cultivating Salameh while Mossad was trying to kill him Bird devotes a large amount of space to the long war in multi sectarian Lebanon that turned Beirut from the Paris of the Middle East to a synonym for terror His ability to craft a coherent and easily digestible narrative that slices through the thickets of a long and complex struggle is this book’s chief achievement “Human nature is not black and white” Graham Greene once wrote “but black and grey” That could be the epigraph of The Good Spy Ames’ association with Salameh is fraught with ethical implications Salameh was to many a terrorist and a murderer But he was also a conduit Ames believed that the Israeli Palestinian uestion could not be answered by speaking to only one side So he forged ahead on his path regardless of what his superiors or various administrations thought America is a longstanding ally of Israel and accordingly her foreign policy has been overwhelmingly slanted in Israel’s favor Thus it took a certain kind of guts for Robert Ames to spin his webs in the ways he did I appreciated Bird’s willingness to not only present Ames’ beliefs but to demonstrate sympathy to the Palestinian cause Too often the conversation about Palestine begins with “they’re terrorists” and ends with “they’re terrorists” Ames recognized that he existed within an imperfect world short on fairy tale heroes and he attempted to work within that paradigm to make things better As Bird writes in his coda The Palestinian Israeli conflict still engenders angry emotions on all sides Robert Ames believed that a real peace was possible The Middle East need not remain a perennial battlefield He used his intelligence and charm to begin the peace process in the shadows of Beirut His clandestine work was a catalyst for that symbolic handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat He was the good spy But his work remains unfinishedAs I’ve already mentioned I don’t think that The Good Spy works well as a biography I did not get any real sense of Robert Ames as a person But Bird is interested in than just a person He is interested in the lives of many people caught up in a seemingly intractable conflict one that has flared subsided and flared again for decade after decade It is an issue that stubbornly eludes a satisfactory conclusion Bird succeeded in convincing me that any acceptable endgame will only come about through the efforts of men and women like Robert Ames who are willing to cross lines think broadly speak directly and challenge their own preconceptions


  3. says:

    Kai Bird believed Robert Ames exemplified the best of American values sober diligent thoughtful and fair Ames was an enthusiastic family man and despite being occasionally short of funds he wanted a big family When stationed in Washington he often kept regular work hours leaving at the same time every morning and arriving home in time to listen to music and read a bit before dinner with the family When someone keeps a regular schedule it is difficult to imagine what goes on in the hours he or she is gone and Ames’ children never knew until his death that he was not the Foreign Service officer he purported to beAmes’ career as a covert CIA agent spanned the decades from the nineteen fifties to the eighties when he was killed in the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing Outside of his personal life Robert Ames has always been a device During his lifetime he was a device for listening to and interpreting activities in the Middle East and a means by which to influence events Now he is the contextual device by which Kai Bird personalizes and focuses his history of the modern Middle East featuring cameos by important players I’m not sure how I convinced myself I needed to read another book about spies I must have been in the midst of Ben McIntyre’s compulsive read A Spy Among Friends Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal when I agreed to take on this true tale of the American spy Robert Ames who was operating about the same time and same location as the infamous British mole Kim Philby After finishing McIntyre’s book and PBS documentary and doing the attendant research I admit to exhaustion with the idea of spies I have a better idea of what they do but I can’t say I am particularly impressed with what they accomplish Spies often feel the same way Bird uotes letters from Ames to his wife in the 1980’s in which he says he feels he has written the same cables over and over during his career and “nothing seems to change” Of course he was writing of the long running Arab Israeli conflict which even today is no closer to resolution despite Ames’ help in preparing the ground for the 1993 PLO Israeli Oslo AccordsIt is tempting for us civilians to imagine the CIA as an agency of super humans knowledgeable and capable beyond the capabilities of ordinary folk But however good they are these individuals operate in a deadening bureaucracy peopled with outsized egos holding differing opinions and they may be held hostage by swift changes in policy that come with newly elected officials and administrations Bird explicates the environment in which Ames navigated introducing us to Ames’ superiors Duane “Dewey” Clarridge among others and presidents including Reagan and Bush and concludes that everyone gets cynical after years in the Agency Bird reports that some CIA officers are amazed when academics are found to have “incredible understanding” of political scenery overseas despite having no access to confidential information or restricted cables Robert Ames was an Arabist Bird paints him as a serious man not given to frivolity or drinking and carousing in contrast to many operatives at the time the British esprit and bonhomie appeared to revolve around alcohol Ames had an earnestness about resolving the Israeli Palestinian issue that he acted upon by forming a liaison with a close associate of Yassar Arafat the flamboyant Ali Hassan Salameh with whom he corresponded throughout his years studying the Middle East Bird goes to great lengths to cast doubt on Salameh's involvement in the 1973 Munich Massacre at the Olympics Ames was sympathetic to the Arab position and distrusted the leadership in Israel and apparently did not believe Salameh would take such an action Bird the son of two Foreign Service Arabists appears to agree with this view Bird writes that “all the Foreign Service officers who spent any time in the Middle East felt a deep sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians” Bird writes in detail about the changing alliance of Arab factions and how one group would morph into another with the death or sidelining of one or another key player With this background we can chart in hindsight the growth in strength of radicalist factions in the Middle East and locate particular times when things might have been steered differently other than eliminating people we disagree with What remains chilling is how little we know despite our “intelligence” and how little we affect for good the larger picture Perhaps Robert Ames deserved his own book; I thought Bird’s final chapters in which he places Ames’ work in the context of larger happenings in the Middle East instructive than focus on a bookish Arab specialist bushwhacking the CIA bureaucracy I am suspicious of people called “fine examples of American values” simply because America has so often proven herself tone deaf and ignorant rather than a courageous and open minded example of democracy at work I am not sure however that Bird was lauding the man Ames so much as showing us that his type of covert CIA officer the learned specialist who dignifies with his consideration positions our political leadership claims to oppose may be a better risk for us as a country to take than to have extrovert fast talking non specialist operatives offering our stated enemies monetary bribes in English thinking they’d “recruited” them Probably both are necessary if only to keep one type from thinking they know it all though I often wonder about the use of the Agency for intelligence gathering anyway Surely a giant bureaucracy is hardly the way to obtain secrets In the end I found I was interested in the broader context of Ames’ work in the Middle East and in the final chapters after the Beirut bombing Bird expands from Ames to give us the larger context It is in these chapters that all the personal attempts by various individuals acting in their own circles come together to create a drama large enough for the world stage All the personalities begin to make sense and we see places we might have had a moment for rapproachment One could argue that Ames died without accomplishing his dream of ending the Arab Israeli conflict but that Kai Bird’s retrospective of his work in context shows us both the errors and the possibilities for the future That this book is written today may be another indication that the tide of public opinion is shifting in America regarding the Arab Israeli conflict Historians and reporters may write unpopular positions but they usually don’t get recognition unless there is a groundswell of appreciation of their arguments My guess is that the tide is finally shifting to support of the Palestinian cause With this history we can see the outlines of American policy in the Middle East in the past fifty years Bird makes no excuses for Israeli intransigence on the issue of a Palestinian state and instead highlights Israel’s role and responsibility for current conditions in the Middle East There are indications the American public is ready to hear this argument Our government will come along when we do Random House Audio provided me with an audio of this book in exchange for an honest review The reader for this book René Ruiz was particularly good with pacing and pronunciation making the details comprehensible


  4. says:

    Around the 1970’s contrary to public policy the US made back door overtures pissing off Israel to Yasser Arafat to broker a peace plan with Israel CIA operative Bob Ames was an Arabist a lover of the Arab culture the language and the history His sympathies appeared to be with the displaced Palestinians and he was a logical choice to create a relationship with Yasser Arafat’s camp This is a strange and confusing book The CIA refused to comment or declassify any information about their involvement as if we would believe them anyway Allegedly some ex CIA employees spoke with the author as if they are reliable ha but most of the confirmed information is the history of the escalating conflict between Arab factions Israel and the US Here are some revealing tidbits 1 There is a majority population of Palestinians in Jordan and the US hoped Jordan would become a Palestinian State 2 It appears the communication and goals between the US State Department and the CIA are sometimes blurry 3 The CIA and its operatives should never have an agenda separate from intelligence gathering4 Jimmy Carter actually said fuck


  5. says:

    An overly dry telling of a true tale that could have been engagingThis was the audio version OVERALL GRADE D plus


  6. says:

    DISCONNECTEDRobert Ames was a CIA analystoperative an “Arabist” specializing in the Middle East during the height of the Cold War In 1983 he was tragically killed – along with 62 others when a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives into the American Embassy in Beirut This is his biography which is at times fascinating and prophetic but is also sketchy muddled – and at least to this reader – ultimately frustrating – raising uestions than it answers – particularly about its subject let alone the Middle East In his introduction the author explains he received no assistance from the CIA Putting aside the debate whether this lack of support was right or wrong – I think it’s safe to say such a decision by Langley is not surprising if not predictable Further Ames’ wifewidow – I assume during interviews with the author makes it clear that her husband was a good company man – sharing only what was necessary with her about his work Further the author knew Ames as an adolescent and just like his parents and neighbors assumed Ames was a State Department employee But even taking that into account these two information sources – or lack thereof this reader had a very difficult time gaining any appreciation or understanding of Robert Ames the man and specifically the “operative” – who by all accounts was extremely effective in gathering and cultivating trusted sources Two cases in point PLO “intelligence officer” and Arafat favorite Ali Hassan Salameh – a name I was familiar with and Ames’ go between Mustafa Zein – a name I wasn’t The chronicling of these two men the most informative and engaging part of the book providing the reader with a behind the scenes look at the formationevolution of the PLO Arafat himself the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the terrorist off shoot Islamic AmalHezbollahIn the “lack of info department” There are only a few paragraphs on Desert One the failed US attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran which the author tantalizingly hints Ames may have helped plan And Ames’ chumming up to Secretary of State George Schultz – a possible inter departmentbureaucratic faux pas – at least among his CIA peers There is also a lot of repetition in the narrative from chapter to chapter – including the presence of author John LeCarre and his inspiration forwriting of his novel The Little Drummer Girl the disappearance in Libya of Imam Musa Sadr and even the statusages of the Ames childrenBottom line is that I found The Good Spy a mixed bag – excellent in parts but far too often sketchy or at least incomplete


  7. says:

    Since I'm into history and the publisher mailed me this book a while back I've just finished Pulitzer prize winner Kai Bird's The Good Spy The Life and Death of Robert Ames I'd never heard of Robert Ames before but now I'll never forget him I've made a very lengthy post at the nonfiction page of my online reading journal so if you want the long of it click through Otherwise you're just getting my impression of the book here Ames' life and work as a CIA agent and then Intelligence Officer in the Middle East as well as the glimpses behind the scenes at politics and policymaking are all very well portrayed here and there may be some small merit in the author's thesis that when Ames was killed in the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut a sizeable chance for peace in the Middle East died along with him He had the both the ear and the confidence of formidable players there he worked tirelessly to help put out flames before they became raging fires and gave up much of his family life in the interests of peace A Good Spy is a most excellent read and it is definitely a book that aI'll never forget b I urge everyone who has an interest in trying to understand the current situation in Middle East to get a copy of and c has definitely spurred my interest in further reading I'm still in a little bit of shock after having finished this book Well worth every second


  8. says:

    Labeled a biography of Robert Ames this is really a deep dive into politics of the Middle East in the 1970's and 1980's The shadow tactics between Mossad and the PLO are fascinating Bird's narrative does not cast a glowing light on the Israelis The chapter detailing the 1983 US embassy bombing in Beirut was nothing short of horrific in its detail We learn about several fascinating characters particularly Ames' Lebanese contacts Zein and Salameh The passages regarding Ames' career were actually the least intriguing and Bird's delivery was somewhat flat at times but overall this was a very good read Not uite excellent but a strong 3 stars


  9. says:

    As I write rockets continue to be launched from the Gaza Strip by the militant group Hamas and Israel continues to retaliate with massive bombing and ground forces As this tragedy continues to unfold Kai Bird’s latest work that deals with the Arab Israeli conflict THE GOOD SPY THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ROBERT AMES is extremely timely When one thinks of the CIA operatives who have impacted the Middle East the names of Miles Copeland Kermit Roosevelt and William Eveland come to mind but usually not Robert Ames However when one calculates the impact of these operatives on events in the region Ames’ name should emerge near the top of the list Bird who during his teenage years was a neighbor of Ames recounts his private and shadow life as a CIA operative in great detail but what he has written is than a general biography He places Ames’ career that encompassed the years 1962 through 1983 in the context of events throughout the Middle East concentrating on the Palestinian Israeli Conflict and the Lebanese Civil War that raged between 1975 and 1983 What separates Ames’ work from others who have attempted to facilitate peace in the region is that he was the individual who “brought the Palestinians in from the cold” through his relationship with Yasir Arafat’s intelligence chief Ali Hassan Salameh 15 The book opens at the White House with a smiling President Clinton cajoling Yitzchak Rabin and Arafat into signing the 1993 accord granting the Palestinians a degree of self government in Gaza and the West Bank Bird argues throughout that this agreement would not have been possible without Ames and that his death during the American embassy bombing in Beirut in 1983 was a blow to the peace process because of Ames’ ability to empathize with Palestinians gain their trust and behind the scenes work to establish a relationship between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the US government in order to foster negotiations with Israel for a permanent peaceDuring his first posting in 1962 in Dhahran Saudi Arabia Ames became the protégé of Richard Helms who later would become the Director of the CIA Like Helms Ames came to believe in human intelligence not splashy technical operations or the application of force which tends to bring too much attention to CIA operations Ames wanted to remain in the “shadows” gathering intelligence from his contacts in making recommendations for policy For Ames “violence was usually impractical ineffective and costly” 37 In the early 1960s the CIA came to place a high value on officers who could develop human resources To do so they recruited agents who could remain anonymous apply discretion and ironclad secrecy in cultivating sources These ualities were difficult to find but along with “commonsensical powers of observation” Robert Ames was the perfect operative Employing these skills for over two decades from postings in Saudi Arabia Iran Kuwait Yemen Lebanon and Langley Va Ames developed numerous sources that allowed him to alter American Middle East policy and work to find a solution to the many conflicts in the regionBird does an excellent job explaining the background history of the Palestinian Israeli Conflict as well as the Lebanese Civil War through the lives of the most important historical characters He focuses on many individuals but zeroes in on those who interacted with Ames the most The two most important people are Ali Hassan Salameh who followed in his father’s footsteps by fighting for Palestinian statehood and eventually he was recognized as one of the top two Palestinian military commanders and the eventual successor to Yasir Arafat The second was Mustafa Zein educated in the US and was a very successful business consultant in Beirut Zein had many contacts in the Arab world and believed he could help bridge the political and cultural divide between America and the Arabs Ames would develop genuine friendships with these individuals and would work behind the scenes using Zein’s contacts to foster a strong relationship with Salameh Bird details how Ames was able to ingratiate himself with a man so close to Arafat and once he is able to do so what the implications of that relationship were Though Salemeh was seen as a terrorist by the US and Israeli governments Ames were able to convince CIA and other national security officials in Washington of the benefits of establishing some sort of tie to the PLO At the time the PLO was labeled a terrorist group by the US and officials were banned from having any contact with them In the early 1970s Ames relationship with Salameh established a back channel for PLO US communication that President Nixon and Henry Kissinger were aware of and Arafat approved With the Jordanian Civil War and the formation of Black September resulting in the Munich Olympic massacre in 1972 Ames worked through Zein to establish further links with Salameh who grew distant at times when elements other than Ames within the CIA tried to officially recruit him Ames realized that would make Salemeh a candidate for elimination by radical elements and just wanted to maintain his “friendship” with him The book at times is a dual biography of Ames and Salameh and stresses how their lives interacted as each tried to use each other for the benefit of the causes they believed in Bird does a superb job explaining the intricacies of the political rivalries within the Arab world and how the US could take advantage of it He explores the relationship between the CIA and the Israeli Mossad and the conflict that usually remained dormant between these two intelligence groups The Mossad resented Ames’ work with Salameh who they blamed for the Munich massacre On a number of occasions Ames warned his source about assassination attempts against him in part because of his friendship and in part because he was so integral to what Ames was trying to achieve As their relationship progresses it becomes clear that Ames is not objective when it came to the Palestinians He developed an emotional attachment to them and in a number of ways reminded me of an American version of TE Lawrence As Bird writes “to say that Bob Ames was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause would be an understatement He empathized with them deeply and admired Ali Hassan to a degree that is hard to explain He knew that Salameh had done some terrible things” and he wrote his wife Yvonne “It is hard to believe our friend was what he was” But being that Ames was the CIA’s only conduit to the PLO he was given great latitude and to his credit usually his subjectivity was not an impediment to his workThe most important parts of the book aside from development of the Ames Salameh partnership was Bird’s description of the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 1983 Bird explains the different Lebanese factions and how they came to be and how they impacted events Bird also explores in detail the connection between events in Lebanon and the development of a plan in the early Reagan years to use Arafat as a vehicle for peace Ames was directly involved in negotiating an Arafat US rapprochement especially after he and his fighters were forced out of southern Lebanon and were given safe haven in Tunisia Bird’s description of the harrowing bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in 1983 that killed Ames and the bombing of the US Marine barracks shortly thereafter are very accurate As he does throughout the narrative Bird relies on his firm grasp of history and numerous sources within each government and movementThe last section of the book focuses on who might have been responsible for the various acts of terror that occurred in Lebanon and an exploration of the role of Iran and its allies in the bombings Bird’s conclusion is that the perpetrator of these acts is currently living comfortably in the US under CIA protection is very disturbing Bird also reiterates his thesis that Ames laid the ground work for the 1993 accords and conjunctures as to what might have been accomplished had Ames not perished in the 1983 embassy bombing Bird’s writing is crisp and his conclusions reflect a great deal of thought and are usually very accurate The book is an important addition to the literature of its subject and if one would like another perspective in trying to understand what is currently presented on the news each hour then Bird’s book is for you


  10. says:

    I received this book from the publisher at no charge and with the understanding that any reviews would be my own opinion The Good Spy The Life and Death of Robert Ames is an in depth view into CIA operative Robert Ames and the Middle EastIsraeliWestern World conflicts and politics The author Kai Bird knew Bob Ames as an adolescent when both families were stationed in Dhahran Saudi Arabia As an adult Bird meticulously researched the personal history of Ames from his youth through his ever rising career in the CIA and to the legacy he left on US Middle Eastern relations policies and spy craft The book starts out somewhat slowly but eventually reaches a comfortable stride that keeps the reader both fans of fiction and non fiction deeply involved in and informed of the complexities of CIA operations and the pursuit of peace between Western and Middle Eastern countries It is heavily favorable of Robert Ames the good spy as a person and most people interviewed for the biography agree with Bird's assessment of Ames Some of his colleagues found Bob to be overly ambitious but most agreed that he was a truly decent individual who loved the Middle East knew it and its people well and worked hard to try to give US leaders an understanding of the region The Good Spy The Life and Death of Robert Ames is very well researched by the author It is easy to read but not overly simplistic What is most interesting about the work is that the reader is shown that Ames felt the Palestinian uest for a homeland was a worthy pursuit He felt that some sort of agreement could probably be achieved through mutual respect and understanding between multiple nations and cultures Unfortunately this did not occur during Bob's fairly short lifetime and of course has yet to be fully resolved to this day A detailed biography of Robert Ames and a significant view of peace efforts and terrorism in the Middle East Kai Bird's The Good Spy The Life and Death of Robert Ames is a significant primer of US involvement in IslamicIsraeli affairs The only improvement I would suggest is that a map of the Middle East be included to show the changing boundaries and areas of turmoil described in the book A veteran reader and student of the area would be familiar with such geography but this book has wider appeal than that and someone wanting to learn about the area could do with the visual aid