'The Good Spy' by Kai Bird makes the case for a more humane form of espionage

Kai Bird's biography of Robert Ames – a CIA operative whom Bird praises as an almost perfect spy – offers valuable insight on the Middle East.

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird, Crown Publishing, 448 pp.

Before his 1981 inauguration, president-elect Ronald Reagan was briefed by the CIA on the intricacies of Palestinian politics. He read a nuanced memorandum outlining the wide spectrum of positions within the Palestinian movement for self-determination. Some groups favored a two-state solution, while others were ready to assassinate any Palestinian willing to compromise with the Israelis. Reagan read carefully for about 10 minutes before looking up and asking a question. "But they are all terrorists, aren't they?"

It would be hard to accuse Reagan of an overly scholarly approach to the Middle East. Perhaps a thorough knowledge of the region was not essential if the president could rely on experts. It's unsettling, however, to learn that some of these ostensible experts seemed to share Reagan's aversion to learning about the subtleties of one of the world's most complex and volatile areas. 

In the spring of 1979, for instance, just after the Iranian revolution, none of the CIA officers in Tehran spoke Farsi. The chief of the CIA's Near East and South Asia division in the mid-1970s once said that learning a local language was a waste of time. Another high-ranking intelligence officer later wrote of the Middle East that "in a generic sense, it's all the same."

A singular exception to this culture of ignorance was a man named Robert Ames, the subject of Kai Bird's new biography, The Good Spy: the Life and Death of Robert Ames. According to a colleague, Ames was perceived within the CIA's directorate of operations as "being too smart, too much of an intellectual." He was later denied a major promotion because he was "too intellectual" for the job. But in Bird's view, Ames was close to the perfect spy: someone who combined a deep knowledge of the Middle East with a formidable talent for practical operations. 

Ames joined the CIA in 1960, and one of his early postings was to Yemen, where he was the only staffer with sufficient Arabic to follow political speeches. He also had a gift for understanding local points of view. He empathized with Yemeni resentment of British colonial occupation. "The soldiers are arrogant and forever harassing the Arabs," he wrote. "No wonder they're hated." 

While many spies recruited sources with abrupt offers of lavish compensation, Ames worked slowly, cultivating genuine friendships and engaging in long political and philosophical discussions. His understanding of local cultures and his interest in different perspectives allowed him to acquire more vital intelligence information than cash handouts could. 

The most important result of Ames’s approach was probably his relationship with Ali Hassan Salameh, an influential leader in Yasir Arafat's Fatah, a secular Palestinian political party and militia. Salameh also oversaw Force 17, the intelligence arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). 

In the early 1970s, Israeli Mossad operatives were targeting various Palestinian leaders for assassination. Some Palestinians, meanwhile, were launching a series of attacks on Israelis. Often these were designed more to draw international attention to the Palestinian's plight than to inflict serious damage. A depressing pattern began to recur: a Palestinian strike would trigger a disproportionate retaliation by the Israelis, which in turn would radicalize and displace more young Palestinians. 

America's position in the region was delicate. Officially, the White House did not want to appear to negotiate with "terrorist" organizations, but alienating the PLO would present a considerable threat to American security at home and abroad. While some in the CIA made clumsy attempts to recruit Salameh as a paid source, Ames listened carefully to Salameh's ideas and sometimes shared his own. Rather than treating him strictly as a source of intelligence to be bought, Ames pursued a kind of clandestine diplomacy. By 1973, Bird writes, "Ames's back channel to Salameh had created a virtual nonaggression pact between the US government and Arafat's guerrillas." The next year, Arafat would address the UN general assembly in New York. 

In 1978, Mossad operatives asked the CIA if Salameh was a paid source. The subtext of the question was clear: is he a legitimate target for Israeli assassins, or does he supply the US government with valuable intelligence? Salameh was not a paid agent, yet he was an essential conduit for Ames and the Americans. He even arranged for the PLO to provide security for American diplomats and the US embassy in Beirut. 

If the CIA claimed Salameh as a paid source to protect him from Mossad, the PLO would regard him as a traitor. But if the CIA didn't claim him, Mossad would proceed with the assassination. Ames wanted the CIA to protect Salameh from Mossad without compromising Salameh’s position within the PLO. But his superiors did not follow his advice, and Salameh was killed in a car bombing in Beirut in 1979. Eight civilians died in the explosion. 

After Salameh's death, Ames still had other valuable Palestinian contacts. He used his influence to help avert the assassination of Israel's prime minister Menachem Begin in New York City in 1981. But Ames could not control the actions of every Palestinian. When the Israeli ambassador in London was shot in 1982, Prime Minister Begin ignored the fact that the assassin was employed by a group the PLO had condemned. He wanted a pretext to invade Lebanon and attack the PLO. "They're all PLO," he declared in a generalization worthy of Reagan.

A few days after the shooting in London, the Israelis initiated a massive invasion of Lebanon with tacit American support. Thousands of Lebanese with no connection to the PLO were killed, and many others were radicalized. Ames's advice not to sanction the invasion was ignored, but he was able to help facilitate peace negotiations with Arafat.

Bird argues that when Ames was killed in the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, the prospects for peace in the Middle East diminished dramatically. "The Good Spy" is a meticulous and moving biography, and Bird makes a persuasive case that Ames might have been able to help establish peace in the region. 

Ames represents a type: the knowledgeable and humane spy who promotes American interests through conversation rather than coercion. His story is a parable for the advantages of a certain approach to intelligence work. Instead of placing confidence only in high-tech surveillance and paid sources, Ames realized what many in the CIA did not: the humanity of those whose organizations he was assigned to infiltrate. 

When asked what people should read to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, CIA veteran George Cave gives a simple answer: the Old Testament. Kai Bird's biography of Robert Ames deserves to join the list of essential reading.

Nick Romeo is a Monitor contributor.

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