Our idea of what spies actually do is deeply tainted by a century or so of novels and movies, some better than others but all of them fictional. “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames” by Kai Bird (Crown, $26), by contrast, is the real thing. And yet, for all of its careful attention to facts, “The Good Spy” is fully as colorful and compelling as the very best imaginary spy stories on the bookshelf or the screen.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer (“American Prometheus,” co-authored with Martin J. Sherwin) and a gifted memoirist (“Crossing Mandelbaum Gate”), Bird allows us to see how the real-life exploits of CIA clandestine agent Robert Ames figure in the vast and tumultuous history of the modern Middle East. With a novelist’s eye for the telling detail and a scholarly commitment to telling the whole truth, Bird has produced a masterpiece.
The story opens on the day in 1993 when President Bill Clinton welcomed Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat to the White House lawn for the signing of an historic (if also ultimately futile) peace accord. “It had all started decades earlier when a young CIA officer named Robert Clayton Ames had cultivated the first highly secret contracts between the United States and the Palestinians,” Bird explains. “Ames paved the way for the peace accords — and for his dedication to his spy craft and his work as an intelligence officer, he’d been murdered in Beirut on April 18, 1983, in the first truck bomb assault on a U.S. embassy.”
The making of a spy, as it turns out, is more akin to the subtleties and contradictions of a John Le Carré plotline than to the stylish fantasies of Ian Fleming. “[Ames] was self-effacing and not afraid to speak up, a cynic and an idealist, a good old boy and an intellectual, a moralist and a problem solver,” one diplomat who knew him said. “Put it together and he was one of the best spooks I ever met.”
Among the insights Bird provides is how little a real-life spy resembles James Bond. Ames was a married man with young children at home, and he shunned the carnal temptations of the exotic places where he was stationed, “[preferring] to spend his free time either practicing his Arabic in the souk or doting on his girls.” He declined the 9-mm Browning pistol that was offered to field officers in the CIA station in Aden: “If they get you here,” he wrote to his wife, Yvonne, “it is in the back or when you’re not looking, and a gun wouldn’t do much good.”
Then, too, Ames excelled at what really counts in espionage, which has little or nothing to do with gadgetry or derring-do. “Getting to know the right people was the definition of good spy craft,” Bird explains. “It was all about getting close to influential or powerful actors. … Good spying was all about empathy.”
Bird is capable of making distinctions between a “Palestinian patriot,” a “guerilla fighter” and a “terrorist,” even when he applies all three terms to the same man — Ali Hassan Salameh, chief of intelligence for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Force 17 and a leader of Black September. (Readers of “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate,” which describes Bird’s childhood as the son of an American diplomat in East Jerusalem, will understand the origins of his point of view.) Indeed, “The Good Spy” reveals how Ames, who was “ambivalent about Israel,” acted on his own initiative to open a channel of communication with some of the most consequential figures in the PLO. “You Arabs claim your views are not heard in Washington,” was the gist of Ames’ message. “Here is your chance. The president of the United States is listening.”
Bird is frank about Ames’ perspective on the Middle East. At best, Ames was “ambivalent about Israel,” according to Bird, but the author also quotes a source who thought Ames “had an overt pro-Palestinian prejudice.” Bird also acknowledges that Ames’ admiration for Salameh is “hard to explain.” Writes Bird: “He knew Salameh had done some terrible things.” But Bird credits Ames with an earnest and principled support for Palestinian nationhood: “When I see some of these so-called ‘nations’ in Africa like Uganda and Idi Amin, I don’t think it is fair,” Ames wrote. “Here a very educated people are denied a home, while the Ugandese eat each other and have a vote at the U.N.! Something’s wrong somewhere.”
More important, Bird insists that Ames’ success in opening a clandestine back-channel to the PLO was regarded as “an intelligence coup” at CIA headquarters in Langley, even if Nixon and Kissinger “blew hot and cold” on the initiative. The endgame, Bird argues, was the opening of direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis for a peaceful solution to the conflict, and the whole point of “The Good Spy” is that Bird regards Ames as one of the American visionaries who made those negotiations possible.
Yet, the overtures Ames made to his contacts inside the PLO were especially treacherous at the time. The Palestinian activists were adopting ever more violent tactics, including a civil war in Jordan and the creation of Black September, “a clandestine force to bring the war to the West.” Salameh was both the intelligence chief of the PLO’s Force 17 and an activist in Black September, and Ames tried to caution him against “carry[ing] out operations in our territory.” The caution did not prevent Black September’s notorious operations, including the murder of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Nevertheless, Bird asks us to regard both Ames and Salameh as peacemakers at heart.
“Arafat could see that the channel that went through Bob Ames to the CIA leadership and ultimately to the White House, offered him the potential opportunity to gain America’s recognition for both the PLO and the rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination and nationhood,” Bird argues. “In this sense, Ames and the CIA had planted the seeds of a peaceful settlement.”
Not surprisingly, neither Ames nor Salameh lived to see even the first doomed shoots from the seeds of peace that Bird describes. Mossad, which had tried and failed to assassinate Salameh on previous occasions in revenge for the massacre at the Munich Olympics, finally caught up with him in Beirut in 1979. (Bird’s account of the mission is fully as suspenseful as anything we’ve seen on “Homeland.”) And Ames, who was regarded as “Mr. Middle East” and “the ghostwriter of the Reagan peace initiative” during the early 1980s, died in the terror bombing of the American embassy in Beirut in 1983, which is attributed by Bird to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Not every reader will regard Robert Ames as a hero. After all, he cultivated some of the PLO’s most bloodthirsty terrorists as contacts and sources. But Bird makes a good case that “Ames’ calculation was a moral one.” As Bird puts it, “Dealing with bad guys is part of the spy craft.” Ames himself is the best example of the price that sometimes must be paid in doing so.