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"The Good Spy" is Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kai Bird's compelling portrait of the remarkable life and death of one of the most important operatives in CIA history - a man who, had he lived, might have helped heal the rift between Arabs and the West.
On April 18, 1983, a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. The attack was a geopolitical turning point. It marked the beginning of Hezbollah as a political force, but even more important, it eliminated America's most influential and effective intelligence officer in the Middle East - CIA operative Robert Ames. What set Ames apart from his peers was his extraordinary ability to form deep, meaningful connections with key Arab intelligence figures. Some operatives relied on threats and subterfuge, but Ames worked by building friendships and emphasizing shared values - never more notably than with Yasir Arafat's charismatic intelligence chief and heir apparent Ali Hassan Salameh (aka "The Red Prince"). Ames' deepening relationship with Salameh held the potential for a lasting peace. Within a few years, though, both men were killed by assassins, and America's relations with the Arab world began heading down a path that culminated in 9/11, the War on Terror, and the current fog of mistrust.
Bird, who as a child lived in the Beirut Embassy and knew Ames as a neighbor when he was twelve years old, spent years researching "The Good Spy. "Not only does the book draw on hours of interviews with Ames' widow, and quotes from hundreds of Ames' private letters, it's woven from interviews with scores of current and former American, Israeli, and Palestinian intelligence officers as well as other players in the Middle East "Great Game."
What emerges is a masterpiece-level narrative of the making of a CIA officer, a uniquely insightful history of twentieth-century conflict in the Middle East, and an absorbing hour-by-hour account of the Beirut Embassy bombing. Even more impressive, Bird draws on his reporter's skills to deliver a full dossier on the bombers and expose the shocking truth of where the attack's mastermind resides today.
- ISBN-13: 9780307889751
- ISBN-10: 0307889750
- Publisher: Crown Publishing Group (NY)
- Publish Date: May 2014
- Page Count: 430
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-02-10
- Reviewer: Staff
More exciting than le Carré’s George Smiley or Fleming’s James Bond, Bird (Crossing Mandelbaum Gate) recreates the life of C.I.A. superspy Robert Ames, an operative with a skill for appreciating the turns and twists of Mideast politics. Ames, a detail-oriented, Philadelphia-bred scholar, was offered a job by the Agency as a junior officer in 1960, rising quickly through the ranks. Later, one colleague said Ames “would have stood tall in his All American shoes as a Louis L’Amour hero.” Whatever the assignment—Beirut, Aden, Asmara, Kuwait—Ames cultivated key Arab sources, befriending such unlikely personalities as Mustafa Zein, a strategic advisor to the ruling sheik of Abu Dhabi, and Ali Hassan Salameh, a favorite of Yasir Arafat, through such flashpoints as the Jordanian civil war, the Munich massacre, and the Iran hostage crisis. Although Ames was an essential player in the 1977 Camp David accords, the C.I.A. Mideast expert with so much potential to unify the opposing factions died in a 1983 bomb explosion outside the U.S. embassy in Beirut, setting back the process of reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians. Bird’s meticulous account of Ames’s career amid an ongoing Mideast climate of caution and suspicion is one of the best books on American intelligence community. (May)
The unknown life and lasting effect of a CIA officer
On September 13, 1993, the day Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, several dozen CIA officers quietly gathered at the grave of Robert Ames in Arlington National Cemetery. While most of the world focused on the hope of Middle East peace, those at Ames’ grave paid tribute to an operative who may have made that peace possible, even though few knew what he had accomplished—not the presidents he served, not members of Congress, not even his own family.
The Good Spy is Kai Bird’s engrossing biography of Ames, who served his country for decades in the Middle East. Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (American Prometheus), received no official help from the CIA, but found that dozens of retired operatives, Ames’ wife Yvonne and his children, and Ames’ longtime contact Mustafa Zein were more than willing to tell his story. A devoted family man, Ames was also gifted with sharp intelligence, a love of Arabic language and culture, and the requisite patience and sensitivity that made him a very effective clandestine officer.
This book is not only a fascinating character study of the man himself, but also a window into the skills Ames used to recruit agents and cultivate relationships with key political and military players. It describes in detail the CIA’s relationship with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, including the lengths the agency went to in an effort to protect key leaders of the organization and the ties Ames maintained with PLO security chief Ali Hassan Salameh, a crucial back-channel to Arafat, the PLO’s “chairman.”
Bird also details Ames’ death in the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing, an attack that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans. The Good Spy demonstrates anew all that was lost on that tragic day, and the consequences for those seeking peace in a war-torn region.