Reviews : The Good Spy : The Life and Death of Robert Ames

New York Times daily May 14, 2014

 New York Times May 14, 2014

A Life in the Shadows in the Cold War Mideast

Kai Bird’s ‘The Good Spy’ Portrays Robert Ames

By Dwight Garner

The first thing to understand about “The Good Spy,” Kai Bird’s cool and authoritative new biography, is that while it’s about a C.I.A. operative named Ames, it is not about Aldrich Ames, the United States counterintelligence officer and analyst who in 1994 was convicted of spying for the Russians.

“The Good Spy” introduces us instead to Robert Ames, son of a Philadelphia-area steelworker, who rose to become America’s most influential intelligence officer in the Middle East. Ames made close connections with important Arab intelligence figures and established an improbable early back channel to Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.

Had he lived longer, Mr. Bird suspects, Ames might well have coaxed out better relations between Arabs and the West. He died on April 18, 1983, when a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. He was 49 and left behind a wife and six children. Only upon his death did most of them learn that their father had been a spy.

The second thing to understand about “The Good Spy” is that the book’s understated pleasures come from reading a pro writing about a pro. Mr. Bird has a dry style; watching him compose a book is like watching a robin build a nest. Twig is entwined with twig until a sturdy edifice is constructed. No flourishes are required, and none are supplied.

Mr. Bird’s several books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (2005), written with Martin J. Sherwin. Most recently he is the author of a memoir, “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and the Israelis, 1956-1978” (2010).

Mr. Bird’s style is ideal for his subject. Ames despised pretense and flash. Not a Lawrence of Arabia manqué, he was solid and reliable, perhaps even a bit dull. He was frugal and rarely drank. His idea of a good time was root beer and a bowl of pretzels, ideally consumed while listening to a Beach Boys or Glen Campbell record.

People warmed to him because he took an interest in them. Ames liked to wear Western boots, but he was more John le Carré than Louis L’Amour. A colleague described him as being “anonymous, perceptive, knowledgeable, highly motivated, critical, discreet — with a priest’s and cop’s understanding of the complexity of human nature in action.”

Mr. Bird tells several stories at once in “The Good Spy.” At the center is Ames’s narrative. But the author also looks consistently backward, to the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as forward to Sept. 11 and the current snarled realities of the Middle East. There is a great deal of incisive writing about the nature of spy craft.

Ames graduated from La Salle University in Philadelphia and in 1956 entered the Army, where he was chosen for signal intelligence duty and assigned to a listening post in Ethiopia. He became interested in the Middle East while on brief visits to Cairo and Jerusalem and began to learn Arabic. He joined the C.I.A. in 1960, at the height of the Cold War, when most of his colleagues were immersed in Soviet affairs. He was posted in South Yemen, in Beirut, in Tehran, in Kuwait. He stood out. He was tall. He spoke the local language in an era when few American Middle Eastern hands did. “Don’t crack jokes in Arabic,” an Israeli Mossad officer was told, “because he knows Arabic.”

The core of “The Good Spy” is an account of Ames’s relationship with Ali Hassan Salameh, a wealthy playboy — he resembled the comeback-period Elvis — who was Arafat’s intelligence chief and heir apparent. Ames arranged a clandestine meeting with Salameh in 1970 and told him, in the author’s paraphrase: “You Arabs claim your views are not heard in Washington. Here is your chance. The president of the United States is listening.”

He was stretching the truth, to some degree. But the delicateness of this relationship is hard to exaggerate. The P.L.O. was viewed as a terrorist organization, and official political contacts with its members were prohibited. Later in the decade, Andrew Young, ambassador to the United Nations under Jimmy Carter, would resign after it was discovered he’d met in New York with the chief of the P.L.O. mission.

Mr. Bird is excellent on the odd couple that Ames and Salameh made. Ames was criticized by some in the C.I.A. for not officially recruiting Salameh as a spy. But Ames felt he was more useful merely as a source.

Salameh had links to the organization behind the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and in 1979 he was assassinated by the Mossad. An American clandestine officer says here about relationships like Ames and Salameh’s: “You sup with the devil, but you use a long spoon.” Mr. Bird, though, shows Salameh to be a complicated and often sympathetic figure, one impossible to reduce to the term terrorist.

Ames ultimately moved with his family back to Virginia and became a high-level Middle East analyst for the C.I.A. He was consumed by the hostage crisis in Iran, and was involved in the development of the botched Desert One rescue mission that helped sink President Carter’s hopes for a second term.

During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the C.I.A. director William Casey relied on Ames for “all things Middle Eastern,” Mr. Bird writes. Ames regularly briefed Reagan; he was, Mr. Bird says, the C.I.A.’s “Mr. Middle East.”

“The Good Spy” provides a fresh and grainy view of the rise of organizations like Hezbollah, and of figures like Osama bin Laden. It allows us to meet in Ames a quiet but strong personality, a man whose fundamental decency allowed him to see both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clearly.

Ames could have sold out and made millions by working for an American oil company. He had offers. His moral compass was too strong. His life and work deserve to be better known.

News Updates

View all news