The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird. New York: Broadway Books, 2014. 355 pages, $16.
Robert Ames must have been an amazing person. How else to explain his ability to bridge what was (and still is) probably the biggest chasm in world politics — the Israeli-Palestinian divide?
Yes, he was an Arabist, a scholar or student of Arab culture and language. And as with his fellow Middle Eastern specialists in American government, often in the State Department or in his case, the CIA, the Palestinian cause was close to his heart.
As Kai Bird writes in this fascinating biography: “To say that Bob Ames was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause would be an understatement. He empathized with them deeply …”
He spent his entire career working with Arabs and lived in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Lebanon. His most significant accomplishment may have been his relationship with Ali Hassan Salameh, who became security chief for the PLO’s Fatah group, and was assassinated by Israel. Through Salameh, who voluntarily talked about the PLO, but not for money and apparently with the OK of Yasser Arafat, Ames provided information about the PLO to the highest levels of the American government.
Bird quotes from a letter Ames wrote to his wife in which the agent conceded that Salameh, who was a friend as well as a source of intelligence, had done some terrible things. “But that’s what comes of frustration,” Ames continued. “If the Palestinians could only have a country, they would be a great asset to the world.”
And yet, despite those sentiments and his background, he had friends in the Israeli Mossad who spoke glowingly of him. One Mossad agent, Dov Zeit, told Bird that Ames understood Israel’s problems. “I liked Bob enormously,” Zeit said. “Bob’s sympathy for Israel came from his being simply decent.”
Ames was able “to empathize with the PLO operative’s political dilemmas,” Bird writes. “Later, he learned to listen to his Mossad colleagues. He understood their dilemmas as well. He could see both sides, even if they stood incontrovertibly opposed to each other on grounds of history and moral imperatives.”
Bird paints a vivid portrait of this CIA official, who was in some ways a web of contradictions. He was an unpretentious and idealistic agent who believed the purpose of his work was to “create a better world. … He wanted his covert intelligence to persuade policymakers to make good decisions,” according to his biographer.
Yet, he was an ambitious man, Bird writes, who had “a keen instinct for the jugular” and was unafraid to express his sometimes controversial opinions.
In his private life, he was first a family man who rarely drank and when possible was home evenings with his wife and kids, according to Bird. But his good friend Salameh was a playboy with a wild lifestyle.
In many ways, Ames was a model agent who personally briefed presidents, secretaries of state, as well as CIA directors. However, he also met with Arafat in 1977, long before such meetings were permitted to American officials.
This is a well-researched biography that chronicles Ames’ era as well as the agent’s life and provides some interesting anecdotes. For example, in 1981, CIA chief William Casey asked the Mossad chief what Israel wanted for muting its opposition to the sale of AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. Satellite intelligence on Iraq’s Osirik nuclear reactor, the Israeli replied. The deal was made and two months later, Israel destroyed the Iraqi reactor.
Another tidbit in the book concerned Janet Lee Stevens. She was an advocate for the Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps who called her “the little drummer girl” because of her passion for their cause. She was a guide for the British novelist David Cromwell (John le Carre) when he visited Beirut in 1982. The title of his novel The Little Drummer Girl comes from Stevens.
Ames had the misfortune to be in the American Embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983, when a bomb in a truck destroyed the building, killing him and 62 other people and wounding 120 others.
That attack, and the assault on the Marine barracks in October of that year in which 299 Marines and French soldiers were killed, were planned and carried out by Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers stationed in Lebanon.
Ironically, the man who masterminded that operation was Ali Reza Asgari, an IRG officer who defected to the United States.
So, writes Bird, “this Iranian agent, a man also deeply implicated in Iran’s hostage-taking of Americans in the 1980s in Lebanon, is now living in America, protected by the agency for which Bob Ames worked and died.”
Ames’ murder by Iranian terrorists was a tragedy for his family. But considering his good relations with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, his loss to the cause of peace in the Middle East may have been incalculable.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at the Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.