By Max Moline
On April 18, 1983, a truck full of explosives crashed into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and detonated, killing 63 people. Among them was 49-year-old American spy and father of six, Robert Ames.
“Ames was sort of an unlikely spy,” Kai Bird, author of the new biography The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, told a Brookings Institution room of academics, government employees and literary enthusiasts last week. Raised in Philadelphia and the son of a steel worker, Ames — unlike many that wound up working for the CIA — “had no blueblood connections,” said Bird.
Yet Ames became the CIA’s top Arabist and opened a channel to the Palestinian Liberation Organization at a time when the United States said it would not talk to the terrorist group.
Ames was an “all-American,” Bird said. He was a tall, blond, blue-eyed basketball player who was serious about his job and didn’t drink. “He was no James Bond,” but he was certainly “a legend inside the CIA,” Bird said.
He was the good spy, because everyone liked him. “He had no enemies, except perhaps inside the bureaucracy,” Bird joked. “Arabs loved him, and so did the Israelis.”
Much of Bird’s book and talk revolved around Ames’ relationship with the people of the Middle East, particularly with Palestinian Liberation Organization and Black September official Ali Hassan Salameh.
“He was right out of the movies,” Bird said of Salameh. He described the man known as the Red Prince as a handsome man who wore all black, let his chest hair show from under his shirt, and wore a gold necklace. “He loved red wine and fast cars.”
Many suspect that Salameh, through his connection with Black September, was the mastermind behind the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre in which 11 Israeli athletes were murdered. Bird said Ames did not believe Salameh was involved.
Salameh started as the chief body guard to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, then became the PLO’s chief of intelligence. In the 1970s, the U.S. government did not recognize the PLO and Ames was forbidden from contacting Salameh.
Bird detailed a clandestine first meeting between Ames and Salameh. The relationship began as an attempt by Ames to turn Salameh into a CIA operative. However, after Ames realized Salameh could not be persuaded, it blossomed into genuine friendship.
The CIA eventually learned of this relationship, and Ames was encouraged to maintain it because of the potential benefits having an “inside man” could provide.
Their bond was strong enough that when Ames caught wind of a plot by Israel’s Mossad to assassinate Salameh in 1973, he warned Salameh to avoid opening mail and to stay vigilant in the case of a letter bomb or other attempts on his life. The Israelis killed Salameh in 1979.
The last chapter of The Good Spy focuses on the attempt to discover who is responsible for the bombing that took Ames’ life. Bird calls the 1983 Beirut attack “the forgotten bombing.”
While many have blamed terrorist Imad Mughniyeh for the bombing, Bird believes the attack was too complicated to have been carried out by just one man, who was 20 years old at the time.
Bird does believe, however, that Mughniyeh was involved. He was originally recruited to Force 17, the Palestinian special forces, by none other than Salameh.
In a 2003 lawsuit, a U.S. district court ruled that the attack was carried out by Hezbollah and funded by Iran.
Bird won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of physicist Robert Oppenheimer. He said when he decided to write a biography of Ames – who was a neighbor in Saudi Arabia during Bird’s childhood in the 1960s – he sent an email to Ames’ widow, Yvonne, with the subject line, “Dahran memories.” The two hadn’t spoken since Bird was 13.
Yvonne Ames provided Bird with 150 letters written by her late husband. The story, however, is far from complete.
When an audience member asked if Bird was comfortable that he has the complete picture of Ames’ life, he responded with a simple “no.”
“Someone else will have to tell the story again in 20 years,” he said.