Under the Radar

Remembering Robert Ames in 'The Good Spy'

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The Good Spy is Kai Bird's remarkable biography of legendary CIA officer Robert Ames, who was killed in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. Bird was the co-author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer and he brings his considerable storytelling talents to the life of a man whose intelligence work attempted to create peace in the Middle East.

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Bird brings a unique perspective to this work: Ames was his next-door neighbor during the author's teenage years in Saudi Arabia. That connection deeply informs the writing in this book and yields the kind of insight you'd normally only get from an in-depth magazine profile where the writer spends a lot of time with his or her subject.

The other outstanding accomplishment here is Bird's ability to get Ames' colleagues to tell such vivid and detailed stories about the man's career. Combined with personal papers provided by Ames' wife, Bird uses the source materials to create a compelling story in spite of the CIA's refusal to offer any assistance in telling the tale. Bird even locates Mustafa Zein, one of Ames' most valuable assets, and gets critical details about the agent's contacts with Ali Hassan Salameh, Yasir Arafat’s intelligence chief and Zein helps identify the mastermind behind the embassy bombing that killed Ames.

The Good Spy is an outstanding book that reads like a novel. Don't be surprised if we're talking about a movie version here in a couple of years.

Kai Bird was kind enough to answer a few questions about The Good Spy for our readers.

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Give our readers some background on Robert Ames and his career.

Robert Ames was born in 1934, the son of a steelworker in Philadelphia. He joined the CIA in 1960 after a stint in the US Army. He then served in the clandestine services in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, Iran, Kuwait and in the CIA's Langley, Virginia headquarters. He rose to become head of the CIA's Directorate of Intelligence for the Near East and South Asia. He died on April 18, 1983 when a truck bomb hit the US Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, killing eight CIA officers, nine other Americans and 46 Lebanese civilians.

What led you to tell his story?

I was just thirteen years old when Bob Ames was our next-door neighbor in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. I thought he was a regular diplomat like my father. Ames was then in his early thirties and Dhahran was his first posting abroad as a CIA case officer. I remember him playing basketball across the street with some of the U.S. Marines stationed on the Consulate compound. And I have memories of his pretty blond wife and their two small children. About six years later, I spent a year at the American University of Beirut—and though I didn’t know it, Ames was stationed in the U.S. embassy that year and was just beginning to cultivate his contacts in the Palestinian community. In another coincidence, when I started out as a freelance journalist, I spent a few months in 1973 in Sana’a, North Yemen—where again Ames had been stationed briefly just a year earlier.

In mid-1973 my father confided in me that Bob was actually a CIA officer. I made a mental note—but I didn’t think it was a big deal. I never met Ames in my role as a journalist—though I now realize he was in Beirut again when I visited as a reporter in 1978. And then in April 1983 I read in the newspapers about the truck-bomb attack that killed him and sixteen other Americans in Beirut. I was deeply moved when I heard of his death. At that time, I wanted to learn more about the circumstances and what it meant to the issue of peace in the Middle East.

I was drawn to his life as a true-life spy story—and it helped that I had known the man. But Robert Ames’s life story is an extraordinary window into the CIA, a topic of immense importance today to all Americans. When you read about Ames you suddenly understand that real intelligence is all about human empathy, the ability of a smart case officer to form genuine friendships with people in a dangerous part of the world. Since 9/11 we’ve been told that intelligence operations—and specifically technical intercept intelligence—is critical to our national security. The Good Spy will make you think twice about all this. And through Ames’s life story I hope my readers will acquire a much deeper understanding of the Middle East—and just how hard it is to be a good spy.

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Did the CIA cooperate with your research?

I asked for some limited cooperation. I spent an hour with George Little the Public Affairs director at the CIA at the time. He was sympathetic. But nothing happened.

Initially, I didn’t think I could write a full-blown biography of Ames, because I thought too much would be classified about his life and career. But very early in the project I learned to my pleasant surprise that everyone wanted to talk about Bob Ames. All his former colleagues wanted his story to be told. One retired CIA officer led me to another source, and that source referred me to yet another source. In the end, I interviewed more than forty retired CIA or Mossad sources. I sometimes knew more than my sources—and the more I knew, the more they tried to tell me. At first, I promised them all anonymity. But when I had a full draft of the story, I checked quotes with each source—and then asked if I could use their true name. Around fifteen sources agreed to go on the record with their true names. In Tel Aviv one evening, a former senior Mossad officer interrupted to ask, “Is your government really going to allow you to publish all these secrets?” It was really an extraordinary treasure hunt.

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How did you get the background you needed to tell the story? Talk about the relationship between Ames and Mustafa Zein and Zein’s role in your story.

A number of Ames’s former colleagues told me that I wouldn’t have the full story without talking to Bob’s closest friend in Beirut, a man named Mustafa. But no one thought I would be able to find him. I was told he had retired to Florida—but there was no record of him anywhere. Finally, someone gave me a cell phone number in a Middle Eastern city. I called it on Skype—and Mustafa answered the phone. He immediately asked how I had found his number. But when he learned of my quest, he said he had been waiting to tell his story for nearly thirty years. I flew to the Middle East and eventually spent more than sixty hours interviewing this extraordinary man. I got his life story—and the story of his fateful friendship with Bob Ames. Zein was never an agent. He never accepted any money from the Agency, but he was willing to introduce Ames to his friend, Ali Hassan Salameh, who served as Yasir Arafat's virtual intelligence chief. Zein did this simply out of friendship--and because he believed the Americans should be talking to the Palestinians. It was a friendship that planted the seeds of the Oslo peace process.

Obviously the 1983 Beirut bombing that killed Ames and 62 others had a negative impact on the Middle East process. Do you think there’s a chance there would’ve been more progress if Ames hadn’t been killed in that attack?

The Israelis constantly remind us that the Middle East is a dangerous neighborhood. This is true. But it is nevertheless a real neighborhood, a community with ordinary people struggling to lead their lives. Ames was an exceptional CIA officer only because he loved the neighborhood and empathized with its people. He made friends, not enemies. And so when he was killed it was a multifaceted tragedy. We don’t know what might have happened had he lived. But everyone in the Agency I interviewed agreed that what he had done in the 1970s planted the seeds of what we call the “peace process.” People started talking. But as we know, we still don’t have a real peace between the Palestinians and Israelis. That’s why I concluded that the Ames story is still unfinished.

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