The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. By Kai Bird.Crown Publishing; 416 pages
KAI BIRD has chosen a clever title for this book. Robert Ames, a CIA agent killed in the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut, was both morally sound, as a faithful husband and doting father of six, and, according to Mr Bird’s impressive sources, very good at his job.
The job took him first to a two-man CIA posting in Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia (where the 11-year-old Mr Bird, whose father was a non-CIA foreign-service officer, lived across the street), and finally to a senior role in Washington, DC. Having spent years living both in the Arab world and Iran, by the time of his last fateful visit to Beirut, he had become, as Mr Bird puts it, “the CIA’s ‘Mr Middle East’ in the Reagan administration”.
But how did Ames, a fluent Arabic-speaker with real affection for the Arab world, see his career? In this often gripping book, Mr Bird portrays him as a brave and ultimately disappointed advocate of peace between Palestinians and Israelis. His conduit to Yasser Arafat’s PLO was Ali Hassan Salameh, the chief of operations of Black September and the man who may—or may not, it is difficult to know in the murky world of terrorism—have been responsible for the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Ames was introduced to Salameh by Mustafa Zein, a Lebanese Shi’ite businessman who both admired America and supported the Palestinian cause. Ames counted both men as friends and, to the annoyance of some CIA colleagues, refused to recruit them as agents.
Salameh, nicknamed the “Red Prince” for his playboy lifestyle, is part of a colourful cast whose lives were cut short by violence. His own end came in 1979 near his Beirut apartment, when Erika Chambers, a British passport-holder recruited by Mossad, triggered a huge car-bomb.
All of this is engrossing for those fascinated by the machinations of the people and politics of the Middle East. Ames himself, for all his sympathy for the Arab world, had no illusions about the region. Of the horribly vicious Lebanese civil war, he wrote: “One good thing came out of this war. The Lebanese are not so arrogant any more. They realise that life is more than a Mercedes and an Yves St Laurent tie.”
But this book should appeal to a wider audience. It underlines the need for intelligence-gathering by humans as well as by machines, and illustrates the gap between spying and policy. Ames’s links with Salameh provided a back door for America to talk to the PLO at a time when Henry Kissinger had pledged to Israel that America would not negotiate with the PLO. Ames the idealist could see a future in which Palestinians and Israelis were at peace with each other, and in which America was seen as a friend by all.
But Ames the realist was forced to recognise the obstacles imposed by America’s political cycle and by its abhorrence of the terror tactics that had finally brought the Palestinian cause to its attention. In his sobering final pages, Mr Bird writes of Imad Mughniyeh, a Lebanese Shia recruited by Salameh into Arafat’s elite intelligence unit, Force 17. Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008, possibly by Mossad in conjunction with the CIA, became a leading force in Hizbullah. His use of suicide-bombers was later adopted by al-Qaeda; he is said to have met Osama bin Laden in Khartoum in 1995.
Mughniyeh may have directed the Beirut embassy bombing. If so, that postscript on Ames’s life is bitter enough, but worse still is the revelation that America later granted asylum to Ali Reza Asgari, Mughniyeh’s controller in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Mr Asgari, responsible for many American deaths, defected in 2007—and his information, Mr Bird reckons, revealed Iran’s nuclear plant near Natanz and led also to Israel’s destruction of a Syrian nuclear reactor. It could be an episode from “Homeland”.