Review of Kai Bird’s ‘The Good Spy’

The most naive man in the Middle East?

In May 1964, the World’s Fair was held in New York City. At the Jordanian Pavilion, a mural depicted destitute Palestinian refugees. Israelis, who happened to have a section next to the Jordanians, complained to Robert Moses, the mercurial parks commissioner who was running the fair. Moses, a Jew, might be sympathetic to their demands to remove the “propaganda against Israel,” they thought. When Mustafa Zein, vice president of the National Organization of Arab Students, heard of the controversy, he also wrote to Moses: “It makes us wonder sometimes if we are living in America or Israel,” he said, imploring the mayor to let American standards of free speech prevail over Israeli bullying.

Years later, it turned out Zein was an interlocutor with the CIA, and that some student organizations he was involved in were funded by the CIA. His close friend was Robert Ames, the subject of a recent profile that reveals how some CIA “Arabists” penetrated deeply into the Middle East and saw Arab nationalists, sheikhs, Beduin leaders and leftists as potential American allies, even against the other American ally – Israel.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames is a story that could have been a novel in the mold of the greats like John Le Carre or Graham Greene – but it is the true story, eloquently told, about an American who played an influential role in the region from the 1960s to the ’80s.

The protagonist, Ames, was born in 1934 in Philadelphia. A Catholic from a middle- class background, he entered the CIA almost by mistake after a stint in the army. His first assignment was in Saudi Arabia, where the book’s author, Kai Bird, was living in 1964 as a teenager. “My father was a foreign service officer stationed in Dhahran, so Bob and [his wife] Yvonne were our neighbors for three years,” wrote Bird. It is this association and other contacts that helped the author piece together the secret life of Ames.

In those days a more innocent America approached the region with rose-colored glasses, and many of the budding Arab nationalists and old-school monarchists admired the US as a power untainted by a colonial legacy. More than 24,000 Americans worked in the region. Ames cultivated a personality apart from the expats and other diplomats (his cover as an agent was as a diplomat). “He wasn’t the kind of guy to go out drinking with the boys,” recalled a colleague.

The CIA officer had empathy for the local Beduin, as well as the leftist nationalists. When he was posted to Aden, the capital of south Yemen, he enjoyed spending the day in the souk or hanging out with merchants speaking Arabic, in which he quickly became fluent. He made contacts with Arab students and revolutionaries, many of them schooled in the US, who had returned with revolutionary fervor and Western ideas.

He took sides; when asked about the Christians in Lebanon, Ames claimed they wanted to create “their own state, protected by the US, just like Israel. We don’t need another Israel in the area.” Bird’s book focuses primarily on the relationship between Ames and Ali Hassan Salameh, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s lieutenant in Beirut in the 1970s. His thesis is that the peace process that came to light in the Oslo Accords of the 1990s “had started as an intelligence operation.”

Salameh’s father had been a companion of the mufti in British Palestine; he had been at Hitler’s side during the war and had participated in a plan to poison Tel Aviv’s drinking water. Salameh was a playboy and a ruthless terrorist; in the 1970s, he was the liaison with the Baader-Meinhof Group that was involved in the Entebbe hijacking.

Bird’s analysis of the relationship between Ames and Salameh seeks to prove that the CIA cultivated an all-important “back channel” with Arafat. Was the CIA on the Palestinian side? “Some thought Ames had a pro-Palestinian prejudice. But in point of fact, most CIA officers who spent any time in the region came to sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian refugees.”

It was more than that. When Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser died in 1970, Ames penned a poem with the line “a light went out, an era ended.” Bird references early on that Salameh thought he had hoodwinked the CIA. “Part of the time, Salameh was probably telling Arafat that he had recruited a CIA officer,” said former CIA agent Bruce Riedel.

The book claims that “Salameh and Ames traded useful bits of hard intelligence with each other, the kind of information that could save lives.” These were the heady days of the 1970s in Lebanon, when the country descended into brutal civil war; Syria invaded the country, Israel invaded; the PLO was running rampant; planes were hijacked to Jordan; the Munich Olympics massacre took place.

Were lives being saved? The Mossad was trying to kill Salameh; initially the author doesn’t explain why, but notes Ames telling them “to watch out for letter bombs.” Ames, in short, was protecting the lives of Salameh and his friends from the Israelis. That is where the disingenuous aspect of this otherwise interesting book becomes clear. When detailing Black September, the terrorist subgroup of the PLO responsible for numerous killings in 1971-1973, the author doesn’t mention the Olympics massacre until after claiming the Mossad was trying to kill Salameh. In fact, it was the other way around – only after the slaughter of Jewish athletes did the Mossad put him atop the kill list.

In the spring of 1972, Ames was writing, “Although I do not agree with all of them [terror activities], I can sympathize with his organization’s feeling that they must carry them out.” This wasn’t a neutral agent working with an important source to advance American interests – Ames was not a good spy, he was an American who supported Palestinians and accepted terrorism.

Indeed, Ames wasn’t worried about Munich’s innocents; he penned a letter to another Palestinian contact, saying “no one will listen anymore” to the Palestinians. Moreover, Bird calls the killings the “Munich fiasco,” as if somehow the biggest problem was that the Palestinians made a “mistake” in killing athletes.

Even when the PLO was alleged to have killed Americans in Khartoum, to have planned to kill US president Richard Nixon, Ames was always there to believe Salameh’s “explanations,” and the author imbibes the Palestinian narrative – terrorism was about getting attention, not bloodthirsty murder. When Ames died in the Beirut bombing of 1983, Bird calls his protagonist an “innocent.” But he wasn’t an innocent; he might very well have done real damage to US national security by naively accepting the propaganda of one of the Palestinians’ most extreme and murderous terror masterminds. Ames had even helped arrange a vacation for Salameh and his wife in 1976, to travel the US and visit Disney World. Who was really the spy, and who was the agent?

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