In a new book out today titled “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames,” Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kai Bird tells the story of Ames, a CIA officer who rose to CIA station chief in Lebanon, and was the CIA’s chief analyst in the Middle East. Ames was killed during the April 1983 suicide bombing attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beruit, an attack in which 63 people were killed, including 17 Americans.
Among other revelations in the book, one making waves is particularly startling: the Iranian mastermind of the 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beruit, along with other attacks that killed hundreds of Americans like Ames, defected to the U.S. in 2007 and provided intelligence to the CIA. Asgari was subsequently granted political asylum and has remained in the U.S., likely under CIA protection, ever since.
As Bird writes, Asgari, a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, shuttled between Lebanon and Iran from 1982-1992, working to establish “Hezbollah as a complete party with all military, intelligence, cultural and political elements.” During this time, Asgari led a terrorist force responsible for kidnapping and assassinating Westerners throughout Lebanon.
Later, Asgari would become a brigadier general and deputy defense minister in Tehran. But in 2002 he reportedly had a falling out with defense officials, and left his position, moving to a company deeply involved in Iran’s nuclear program.
Following an arrest in 2004, in which Asgari served an 18-month sentence, in 2007, Asgari defected to the West. Bird indicates that this decision may have been in part due to Asgari’s disaffection with the Iranian regime, including former Revolutionary Guard rival Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected president in 2005.
Sources cited in the book note that Asgari was an incredibly valuable intelligence asset for the Bush administration, given his knowledge of Iranian terrorism (and specifically his deep knowledge of Hezbollah), and information on the country’s nuclear program. Indeed upon his defection, Asgari reportedly turned over Iranian intelligence documents with information on “Hezbollah, Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.”
Once debriefed, Asgari’s intelligence reportedly led to the Israeli bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor, as well as the assassination of one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists, Imad Mugniyah, by Mossad.
Asgari was subsequently granted political asylum, a decision that Bird claims ruffled feathers within the CIA, given Asgari’s connection to the murder of hundreds of Americans and others. But the Bush administration ignored such sentiments. Bird writes that those opposed to granting asylum in the CIA were
“overruled by…George W. Bush administration’s National Security Council…Granting asylum to a man with Asgari’s résumé was a political call that could only have been made in the White House. Some of President Bush’s NSC advisers evidently believed that the intelligence Asgari brought to the table on the Iranian nuclear program was essential to the national defense. In effect, national security needs trumped whatever loyalty the U.S. government owed to the memory of Robert Ames and all of Asgari’s other victims in the Beirut embassy and marine barracks bombings.”
Bird notes that “Washington has still not officially acknowledged Asgari’s defection.”
When asked about Asgari’s asylum, a high-level intelligence official in the Bush White House reportedly responded “At the unclassified level, I cannot elaborate on the issue.”