THE GOOD SPY: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF ROBERT AMES, by Kai Bird

 

 

 

 

(The US Embassy, Beirut, Lebanon after the bombing, April, 1983)

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 more 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 peace.

During 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 qualities 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 region.

Bird 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 Salameh 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.

(Robert Ames)

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 T.E. 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 work.

The 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 movement.

The 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.

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