The Foreign Service Journal - October 2014 - page 69

A Unique View of the
Middle East
e Good Spy:
e Life and Death
of Robert Ames
Kai Bird, Crown Publishers, 2014, $26.00,
hardcover, 430 pages.
After winning the Pulitzer Prize for his
2005 biography of J. Robert Oppen-
American Prometheus
, author Kai
Bird turns his attention to
a much less known but no
less worthy subject: CIA
agent and Middle East
hand Robert Ames.
Bird, the son of a For-
eign Service o cer, paints
a vivid picture of Beirut,
Saudi Arabia, Yemen,
Iran and the wider Middle
East during the tumultu-
ous years of the 1960s,
1970s and 1980s. He also provides a truly
excellent primer on the early years of the
Palestinian struggle for independence,
going into the world of Fatah and Black
September in great detail.
Bob Ames grew up in Philadelphia and
played basketball at La Salle University;
he was on the team that took the NCAA
championship in 1954. Following a stint
in the Army—he was a member of the
Signal Corps in what is now Eritrea—he
took and failed the Foreign Service exam
and then applied to the Central Intelli-
gence Agency, into which he was quickly
He proved himself a gifted intelligence
o cer and chose to specialize in the
Middle East, which at the time was not
a highly sought-after area. His rst CIA
posting was to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia,
where his cover was that of a commercial
o cer in the Foreign Service.
Bird—whose father was posted in
Dhahran during this same period—
describes life in a small desert post won-
derfully, and includes a highly amusing
vignette in which Ames and Vice Consul
(and later Ambassador) Patrick
y to Bahrain, where
eros’ duty was
to bring back a suitcase full of alcohol
into dry Saudi Arabia.
is did not go o
without a hitch.
Following his years in Dhahran, Ames
had a succession of postings in the Middle
East—Aden, in what was then
South Yemen, Beirut, Tehran—
as well as back in Washington,
D.C. It was during this period
that Ames exhibited his enviable
ability to make friends in the
Middle East, and often turn
those friends into uno cial
sources for the CIA. His uent
Arabic and deep knowledge of
Middle Eastern history helped
It was during his years in Beirut that he
became embroiled in the Israel-Palestine
issue, and got to know two individuals
who would change his life: Mustafa Zein
and Ali Hassan Salameh.
rough them
he gained unparalleled insight into the
Popular Front for the Liberation of Pales-
tine and the creation of Black September.
e latter was responsible for such atroci-
ties as the massacre of Israeli athletes at
the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1973
killings of U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel and
Deputy Chief of Mission George Curtis
Moore in Khartoum.
Ames’s relationship with Salameh
opened a window into this world and cre-
ated a back channel that then-Secretary of
State Henry Kissinger never acknowleded
During the 1970s and early 1980s,
Ames’ career had some successes and
some setbacks. A great success was the
PFLP’s promise to not target Americans as
long as the back channel remained open
and the U.S. provided some support to the
Palestinian cause.
ose who know this
period in the history of the Middle East
are aware that Salameh was assassinated
in 1979; Mossad is believed to have been
e book’s subtitle gives away the
fate of Bob Ames. He was among the 63
people killed in the terrorist attack on
Embassy Beirut in April 1983.
e life of
a “good spy” ended at the age of 49. He
was survived by his wife Yvonne and six
Bird is a master storyteller, and eshes
out a large swath of recent history through
Ames’ life. A fascinating protagonist,
almost a Forrest Gump of the intelligence
world, Ames is seemingly involved in
every consequential event of the Middle
East during that period.
e narrative
is heightened by Bird’s meticulous and
prodigious research, and his access to an
astonishing number of people who knew
Bob Ames personally and professionally.
Foreign Service readers will enjoy
cameos of a large number of individuals
from the diplomatic community: Hume
Horan, Patrick
eros, Steve Buck, Frank
Carlucci, Ryan Crocker, John Gunther
Dean, Herman Eilts, Harriet Isom, Bruce
Laingen and Henry Precht are among
those who make an appearance.
Bird is sympathetic to his subject—
perhaps slightly
sympathetic—and is
muted on criticism of the CIA’s question-
able dealings with unsavory characters
and the agency’s uid allegiances to the
various sides of an issue.
But there is no denying the power of
the story, which is only enhanced by the
fact that it is true.
Ásgeir Sigfússon is AFSA’s director of new
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