Book Review: Kai Bird, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (Crown, 2014)

Robert Ames did not join the Central Intelligence Agency in 1960 with a plan to go to the Middle East, a region that had already stirred his interest. Yet, it was the best place for him. Ames’ own positive approach toward individuals and his training and mentoring coalesced magnificently. He wanted to help the people of the region while promoting US interests.

In The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (Crown, 2014), Kai Bird tells the story of the immense life of Robert Ames of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). As a “good spy,” Bird makes it clear that Ames is not a cliché of romantic US spy lore. He was indeed a unique individual. Bird deftly sheds light on his character and his brand of tradecraft in the clandestine profession. Regarding his “life and death,” Bird brilliantly details Ames life from birth on March 6, 1934 into humble beginnings of a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia to the moment he was killed at 49, in the April 18, 1983 truck bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. He left behind a wife and six children. Looking back at Ames life, it is hard to imagine how Ames could have been happier, or could have been better suited for any job, anywhere other than with CIA in the Middle East. Ames accomplished much. Bird proffers a view held by Ames former colleagues that he ignited the Oslo Peace Process due to his close relationship with Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat’s intelligence and security chief. Bird believes, if Ames had lived, he might have “helped heal the rift between Arabs and the West.”

Bird was never an US intelligence officer. He is a renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. Yet, Bird writes The Good Spy with incredible insight into the life of a case officer living in the Middle East. Perhaps his perspectives may have been enhanced by recall of his own experiences as the son of a US Foreign Service officer who was posted primarily in the region. Bird grew up in some impressive spots in the region to include: Jerusalem, Israel, Beirut, Lebanon; Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; and Cairo, Egypt. Moreover, as an adolescent, Bird actually met Ames while his father was posted in Dhahran. Ames was using the official cover of a Foreign Service officer at the US consulate and for three years his family lived across the street from Bird’s home. In his research, Bird was able to interview more than forty officers, both clandestine officers and analysts from CIA’s operations and intelligence directorates were willing to share their memories of Ames. Interview of others were also conducted with relevant sources in Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel. Ames` wife spoke with Bird and shared her small collection of photographs, correspondences, and a family scrapbook. Bird skillfully used those unique resources, making his biography a profound, edifying discussion of Ames and his career.

Ames loved God, his country, his family, and the Middle East. While some colleagues and managers were perhaps indifferent or often confused about the region, Ames spoke with vividness and a certain whimsy about it. He steeped himself in Arab culture and language and Islam enough to be called an Arabist and become a National Intelligence Officer for the Near East at the time of his death. Ames discovered in the field how to navigate through a myriad of situations and manage complex intertwinings in the region. Those skills were refined by experiences and by people willing to serve as his mentors and advisors. Bird provides readers with enough information to realize that long before he came to CIA, Ames was implanted with an ability to engage people in a natural way and establish genuine friendships. What was worthy about people he met, he tended to appreciate and embrace. He would shuck off what was not. He did not suffer fools lightly or conceit to evil. He could discern the wicked from the righteous. Unlike many he dealt with in the field and CIA, Ames, himself, engaged in what would be viewed as “moral behavior’; some might say he was boring. He rarely drank and avoided the distractions of the most intriguing and lively locales. This contrast with colleagues and foreign contacts is made apparent in The Good Spy, but its discussion does not come off as an exercise in moralism.

The Good Spy can be read at many levels. For example, it is a history of CIA activities in the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s. It can be viewed as an enhanced history of US diplomacy and the often mangled process of communication during that tempestuous period in the Middle East. It also can identified as a history that sheds clear and revealing light on the nature of US relations with Arab States. Indeed, The Good Spy contributes to the record of the US experience in the Middle East, but dozens of books have already been written on that topic. What makes The Good Spy most exciting is the story of the man, Robert Ames.

Bird shows that there were indications of Ames’ potential as an intelligence officer even from his earliest years. However, Bird also deftly shows how his interactions with certain individuals were significant enough to help Ames hone his capabilities and allow him to become something that he might not have been without them. Often those having such an influence on him were extremely impressive individuals in their own right. They availed Ames with treasure troves of knowledge and experience from which to learn. In addition to mentioning Ames was raised in the working-class Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia, Ames and his two sisters, spent summer months on the New Jersey shore with their maternal grandparents, who made certain they knew their family history and that the children, themselves, were a part of that history. The children knew who they were and had a strong self-image. Their grandparents were Catholic just as their mother. Although their father was Methodist, they likely provided some spiritual grounding through Catholicism, too. There was a challenge to that self-image for Ames came after he joined the varsity basketball team at La Salle College along with his friend, Tommy Gola. In high school, Ames was a great player, and a tremendous athlete. He worked hard at perfecting his skills, and became his high school team’s leading scorer, but at La Salle, Ames never made the starting line-up. Meanwhile his friend Gola became the team’s star. The young Ames never reacted negatively. He took the situation with good humor, putting a good face on it. Nonetheless, skilled, ambitious, and competitive, the situation was very difficult. Playing basketball was important to Ames. He was proud to be on the 1954 NCAA Basketball Champion varsity team. The coach at La Salle could see that Ames deep down was disappointed, but he would not change the situation. For Ames, showing humility in such an unfavorable situation, made him more mature, stronger. Ames learned first-hand what it was like to be blocked from making full use of one’s capabilities. He knew what it was like to be the underdog. Ames also knew what it was like to not have the ear of anyone who could change his situation for the better. From this experience, Ames was able to be authentically sympathetic to others in the world who felt they were in a similar position.

Through his studies at La Salle, Ames sought to answer questions he had about the world. The school was run by the Christian Brothers. Ames was always open to new things, making him child-like to some degree, but not childish. He majored in sociology, and enhanced his course of study with classes in psychology, philosophy, as well as prelaw. Ames believed studying prelaw would help him secure a position as a Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent. That was all put on hold when Ames was inducted into the military after college. He was assigned to the US Army Middle East Signals Communications Agency’s base at Kagnew Station in Ethiopia in 1956. From the base, the US intercepted the military and diplomatic communications of Egypt and other Arab states. Ames worked in a supply company that kept track of spare parts for transmitters and receivers. It was an introduction to the world of Intelligence for Ames. Moreover, it was an introduction to Catholicism and the Middle East. On the way to Kagnew, on stopovers in Tripoli, Libya and Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, he heard Arabic for the first time. Ames was struck by what he saw. As would be the norm, Ames did not frolic with his comrades in arms in the nearby town of Asmara. He exercised with weights, studied about the Middle East, religion, and learned Arabic. He spent enough time with the Catholic chaplain on base to choose to convert to Catholicism. He went on trips to the Holy Land, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome of the Rock and walking through the Old City. He also visited Cairo, Egypt, and toured the Great Pyramids at Giza. Ames experiences compelled him to learn more about the Middle East and to study Arabic. After serving over two years in the Army, Ames let his parent know that as a career goal, he wanted to see the world and tried to enter the US Foreign Service but he failed to pass the examination. In the end, he settled on a career at CIA which hired him in 1960.

During the same year, Ames married Yvonne Blakely, the beautiful daughter of a Lutheran pastor and former career naval officer. That led to his excommunication from the Catholic Church. His love for her was that strong. However, the Catholic Church was truly an important part of who Ames’ identity, and he arranged for his return to it. After completing his training in 1962, Ames was selected for service in the Near East Division of the Directorate of Plans—known today as the National Clandestine Service. Ames did not join CIA just to return to the Middle East. Ames also did not join CIA to engage in development work. Indeed, CIA was not then, and is not now, a humanitarian aid or charitable organization. Yet, when given the chance to work for the Agency, Ames apparently made the calculation that he could go to the Middle East, and make life better for the people in the region while ultimately serving US interests.

Ames first posting was to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia where he received encouragement from his boss, James Critchfield. Critchfield was a veteran of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor of the CIA in World War II, and was known as an Agency “Baron” from the action oriented era of the 1950s. Yet, despite having that reputation, Critchfield wanted to end the cowboy culture and bring a greater degree of knowledge and sophistication to the Agency’s activities in the region. That included going back to basics of recruiting spies.

During his training Ames was taught how to recruit by the manual. Bird describes it as a subtle exercise in peeling away an individual’s loyalties and transferring them from one cause to another. Bird notes that recruitment happens rarely. It usually occurs when the recruiters can make it seem only natural and fitting that the target should be talking to the case officer. Invariably, according to Bird, the recruited spies want to be recruited. Most spies are walk-ins, meaning they volunteer to serve in some fashion. Otherwise a genuine recruitment happens through a long intellectual seduction. The case officer shows empathy and shares his heartfelt views of his target.   He invites him or her to dinner and eventually offers something, even innocuous material rewards. When the opportunity presents itself, the case officer asked the target to sign on as a knowing agent with a written agreement. While the recruitment of sources would place a feather in the war bonnets of case officers, Ames would rather establish a relationship that could result in reliable source of accurate information that might be actionable.

Bird mentions that early on Ames caught the attention of Richard Helms, an OSS operations veteran. Helms was promoted to deputy director of Plans as a result of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Helms believed the clandestine collection of secret intelligence by case officers was an important task and risky covert operations interfered with that work around the world. New means such as U-2 spy planes and the electronic surveillance of communications were being touted by some the wave of the future and replacements for the spy. When in contact with Ames, Helms impressed the need for human intelligence upon him. Helms, who would eventually become CIA director, thought very highly of Ames and supported his progress at CIA.

While Ames preferred to avoid the US corporate employees working in Dhahran, he managed to befriend Richard Metz, a veteran of both the OSS and the CIA. Metz and Ames would talk at length. Metz tutored Ames on the intricacies of tribal politics and helped Ames navigate in the region. He made Ames better able to work with the members of the royal family. Ames discovered that his efforts to learn about the region would pay off, together with being 6’3” handsome, being personable, and speaking fluent Arabic, Ames quickly gained a reputation wherever he went as being an American with whom one could talk. Metz showed Ames the invaluable skill of having fruitful conversations to strengthen connections with the Arabs in particular. Metz’s advice, along with his own experiences in Saudi Arabia, reinforced Ames view that good friendships with key players, and well as merchants in the suq and maintaining a positive reputation would be key to development of potential sources and contacts and the development and performance of his tradecraft in the region. Ames was always learning, and never became a victim of pride. He never indicated any sense of knowing it all.

An intriguing consideration about Ames’ approach to the people of the Middle East was the fact that at the same time when he was creating deep meaningful connections with Arabs he met in the 1960s, within his own country, there was significant racial discord. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a Civil Rights Movement, supported by Freedom Riders, and thousands of volunteers for marches and sit-ins, who struggled for an end the racial segregation and equal rights for all US citizens. There were no efforts made toward multiculturalism and diversity within CIA at that time. In CIA, Ames was one of the few special individuals who were not simply tolerant of various racial, ethnic, and religious groups. He truly respected the people he encountered in the Middle East. It was very apparent. Ames often heard colleagues overseas use derogatory terms while discussing the Arabs. Bird writes that Ames was disappointed. even discouraged when he heard some of his managers express very intolerant, and indeed, racist views of the same people whose friendship he valued and the company in which he truly appreciated being.

There were two contacts that Ames developed which received considerable attention from Bird. Through the story of those contacts, Bird shed valuable light on the nature of Ames’ utilization of friends to collect vital information. One was Mustafa Zein, a young Shi’a Muslim, and successful business consultant to US and local firms, well-connected through the region, residing in Beirut. Zein was born in to some means and was educated not only in US schools in Beirut, but lived as an exchange student in Naperville, Illinois and graduated from the town’s North Central College run by the United Methodist Church. He had also been involved with the Organization of Arab Students. After Zein’s organization came in contact with the National Student Association, a organization funded by the CIA to help spot individuals for potential recruitment, Ames was eventually instructed to meet him. Ames scoured Zein’s file but knew understanding him in the abstract would not be as valuable actually interacting with him. Another CIA case officer in Dhahran set the meeting in motion by telling Zein to look up Ames the next time he was in Beirut. When they met in late 1969, Ames complimented Zein on being able to work with powerful figures. Zein expressed concerns about the US policy, the resulting Soviet progress in the region, and the plight of the Palestinians, and Ames listened closely. Ames thought Zein was ideal for recruitment, but Zein wanted no part of that. He did want to help, but, informally, in his own way. When he next saw Ames, Zein agreed to do things to advance relations between the US and the Arab people, but not for money. Zein also asked Ames that they pledge to be truthful to each other. For Ames, working with Zein professionally meant having an access agent, who could help spot and recruit other spies. However, Zein was much more than that for Ames. In addition to meeting intelligence requirements from headquarters, Zein’s knowledge of people and events, helping Ames keep a finger on the region’s pulse and support his continued learning process. Zein would introduce Ames to his second most important contact, Ali Hassan Salameh.

Salameh, a friend of Zein, was a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, allowing him the ear of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and leader in Fatah’s Revolutionary Security Apparatus which he was nurturing into a rudimentary intelligence bureau for the PLO, later called Force 17. Salameh was quite cosmopolitan and living the lifestyle of a playboy, breaking many mores of the Arab World. Ames claimed that he was given instructions from US President Richard Nixon to create a line of communication to the PLO. He had Zein introduce him to Salameh. Ames believed the PLO should be encouraged to transform into a real political party, and wanted to support that effort. Salameh saw some benefit having an important channel to the US. Ames and Salameh, complete opposites, became friends. Professionally, each would be the most significant person in the others life. Salameh was an incredible source of information and insight for Ames. However, soon enough, Ames managers wanted to recruit Salameh, not to collect information, but to use him as a means to gain control of the PLO’s activities. Ames wanted no part of it. CIA sent another field agent to meet Salameh in Rome, using Zein’s help. The agent’s recruitment pitch made to Salameh was for him “to coordinate activities with your organization with our organization,” for $300,000 a month. In a meeting with the agent the next day, Zein, rejected the offer on behalf of Salameh who was present, in a unique way. He stated Salameh would accept his terms “to finance the PLO to the tune of $35 million a year—and recognize the PLO.” Zein also explained to the field agent that “He’s [Salameh] already sent a coded message to Arafat. The Chairman is very pleased.” The field agent hastily left the meeting place, and blamed Salameh for the failed recruitment pitch. The effort evoked negative responses from Zein and Salameh. They were insulted by it. Ames eventually managed to patch things up with both. A line of communication between CIA and the PLO was created through Salameh. It survived the years of chaos and conflict in the 1970s Middle East. Salameh would die violently in the region in 1979.

Before hearing of this book, many may have been completely unaware of Ames. Reading it, they will learn of his amazing life and his considerable achievements. They will also discover how much Ames valued others and his value to humanity. He lost his life in the Middle East, a land which to him was a great treasure. A man of integrity, Ames had a strong moral center, an abundance of goodwill, and always the best intentions. He made the best impression possible of himself and his country with everyone he met.

There is much, much more about Ames in this exciting book. Readers of greatcharlie.com are likely working through their summer reading lists. Hopefully, they will be able work The Good Spy in among their selections. Without using distortion or exaggeration, it is a book that will take the reader on a journey through the Middle East and halls of power in Washington, DC. It is a story of intrigue and excitement as much as humility and honor. It discusses people and ideas that have moved events forward which is an emphasis of greatcharlie.com’s commentaries. Without reservation, greatcharlie.com highly recommends The Good Spy to all.

By Mark Edmond Clark

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