Monday, June 16, 2014

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames Kai Bird believed Robert Ames exemplified the best of American values: sober, diligent, thoughtful, and fair. Ames was an enthusiastic family man, and despite being occasionally short of funds, he wanted a big family. When stationed in Washington, he often kept regular work hours, leaving at the same time every morning and arriving home in time to listen to music and read a bit before dinner with the family. When someone keeps a regular schedule, it is difficult to imagine what goes on in the hours he or she is gone, and Ames’ children never knew until his death that he was not the Foreign Service officer he purported to be.

Ames’ career as a covert CIA agent spanned the decades from the nineteen fifties to the eighties, when he was killed in the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing. Outside of his personal life, Robert Ames has always been a device. During his lifetime he was a device for listening to and interpreting activities in the Middle East and a means by which to influence events. Now he is the contextual device by which Kai Bird personalizes and focuses his history of the modern Middle East featuring cameos by important players.

I’m not sure how I convinced myself I needed to read another book about spies. I must have been in the midst of Ben McIntyre’s compulsive read, A Spy Among Friends, when I agreed to take on this true tale of the American spy Robert Ames who was operating about the same time and same location as the infamous British mole Kim Philby. After finishing McIntyre’s book and PBS documentary and doing the attendant research, I admit to exhaustion with the idea of spies. I have a better idea of what they do but I can’t say I am particularly impressed with what they accomplish.

Spies often feel the same way. Bird quotes letters from Ames to his wife in the 1980’s in which he says he feels he has written the same cables over and over during his career and “nothing seems to change.” Of course, he was writing of the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict which even today is no closer to resolution, despite Ames’ help in preparing the ground for the 1993 PLO-Israeli Oslo Accords.

It is tempting for us civilians to imagine the CIA as an agency of super-humans, knowledgeable and capable beyond the capabilities of ordinary folk. But however good they are, these individuals operate in a deadening bureaucracy peopled with outsized egos holding differing opinions, and they may be held hostage by swift changes in policy that come with newly elected officials and administrations. Bird explicates the environment in which Ames navigated, introducing us to Ames’ superiors (Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, among others) and presidents (including Reagan and Bush), and concludes that everyone gets cynical after years in the Agency. Bird reports that some CIA officers are amazed when academics are found to have “incredible understanding” of political scenery overseas despite having no access to confidential information or restricted cables. (!)

Robert Ames was an Arabist. Bird paints him as a serious man, not given to frivolity or drinking and carousing, in contrast to many operatives at the time (the British esprit and bonhomie appeared to revolve around alcohol). Ames had an earnestness about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue that he acted upon by forming a liaison with a close associate of Yassar Arafat, the flamboyant Ali Hassan Salameh, with whom he corresponded throughout his years studying the Middle East. Bird goes to great lengths to cast doubt on Salameh's involvement in the 1973 Munich Massacre at the Olympics. Ames was sympathetic to the Arab position and distrusted the leadership in Israel, and apparently did not believe Salameh would take such an action. Bird, the son of two Foreign Service Arabists, appears to agree with this view. Bird writes that “all the Foreign Service officers who spent any time in the Middle East felt a deep sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians.”

Bird writes in detail about the changing alliance of Arab factions and how one group would morph into another with the death or sidelining of one or another key player. With this background we can chart in hindsight the growth in strength of radicalist factions in the Middle East, and locate particular times when things might have been steered differently (other than eliminating people we disagree with). What remains chilling is how little we know despite our “intelligence,” and how little we affect for good the larger picture.

Perhaps Robert Ames deserved his own book; I thought Bird’s final chapters in which he places Ames’ work in the context of larger happenings in the Middle East more instructive than focus on a bookish Arab specialist bushwhacking the CIA bureaucracy. I am suspicious of people called “fine examples of American values” simply because America has so often proven herself tone deaf and ignorant rather than a courageous and open-minded example of democracy at work. I am not sure, however, that Bird was lauding the man Ames so much as showing us that his type of covert CIA officer, the learned specialist who dignifies with his consideration positions our political leadership claims to oppose, may be a better risk for us as a country to take than to have extrovert, fast-talking non-specialist operatives offering our stated enemies monetary bribes (in English!), thinking they’d “recruited” them. Probably both are necessary, if only to keep one type from thinking they "know it all," though I often wonder about the use of the Agency for intelligence-gathering anyway. Surely a giant bureaucracy is hardly the way to obtain secrets.

In the end, I found I was more interested in the broader context of Ames’ work in the Middle East, and in the final chapters after the Beirut bombing, Bird expands from Ames to give us the larger context. It is in these chapters that all the personal attempts by various individuals acting in their own circles come together to create a drama large enough for the world stage. All the personalities begin to make sense and we see places we might have had a moment for rapproachment. One could argue that Ames died without accomplishing his dream of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict but that Kai Bird’s retrospective of his work in context shows us both the errors and the possibilities for the future.

That this book is written today may be another indication that the tide of public opinion is shifting in America regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Historians and reporters may write unpopular positions but they usually don’t get recognition unless there is a groundswell of appreciation of their arguments. My guess is that the tide is (finally) shifting to support of the Palestinian cause. With this history we can see the outlines of American policy in the Middle East in the past fifty years. Bird makes no excuses for Israeli intransigence on the issue of a Palestinian state and instead highlights Israel’s role and responsibility for current conditions in the Middle East. There are indications the American public is ready to hear this argument. Our government will come along when we do.

Random House Audio provided me with an audio of this book in exchange for an honest review.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. When I took Arabic in college, rumor had it that fluency in Arabic was a one-way ticket to a dead-end career in the foreign service, since the assumption was that anyone who took the time to learn Arabic was obviously biased against Israel, never mind that Israeli intelligence officers all speak Arabic. Sigh. It must cause physical pain to some of our better people in the foreign service & intelligence agencies at times to work for such bloody stupid bureaucracies steered by the whims of a completely ignorant electorate. Or not, they seem to find a way to carry on. Great review.

  2. Bird goes into some detail about the changes in the thinking of "The Agency" and of Congress, who in the mid-80's, I think it was, decided that people on the ground were not a reliable way to accumulate intelligence. The Agency was downsized and sidelined in favor of other means (read: telecommunications) of intelligence retrieval. Also, it was as you say...Arabists were "too close" and identified with their subjects. I choked to read that. C'mon, really?. For a laugh, you must read Duane "Dewey" Clarridge's autobiography of his spy years, called A SPY FOR ALL SEASONS. Native son of NH, he should put a damper on thoughts of American supremacy. Scary.