Kai Bird interview by Shelf Awareness editor Ron Hogan

Sep 16, 2014

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.

--Interview by Ron Hogan

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