The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

Robert Ames’s name is prob­a­bly unfa­mil­iar to many of those who have fol­lowed the tur­bu­lent his­to­ry of the Mid­dle East. But Ames was the CIA sta­tion chief in Lebanon when he was killed, along with six­ty-two oth­ers, in April 1983 by a sui­cide bomber out­side the Amer­i­can embassy in Beirut. The bomb­ing set in motion the rise of the Iran­ian-Syr­i­an sup­port­ed Hezbol­lah whose objec­tive was to dri­ve Israel out of Lebanon and con­tin­ues to be an intractable ene­my of Israel to this day. Ames’s death removed from the region the Unit­ed States’ most influ­en­tial intel­li­gence offi­cer in the Mid­dle East. Kai Bird, the author of four pre­vi­ous books includ­ing the prize-win­ning biog­ra­phy of J. Robert Oppen­heimer, Amer­i­can Prometheus, has writ­ten not only a life-sized por­trait of Robert Ames, but also has pro­vid­ed an account of the shad­ow oper­a­tions of the CIA whose activ­i­ties are often over­looked in accounts of Israel’s ongo­ing con­flict with its Pales­tin­ian foes. 

Born and raised in Philadel­phia, Ames attend­ed La Salle Uni­ver­si­ty where he was an above aver­age stu­dent and starred, along with Tom Gola, on the school’s bas­ket­ball team. Fol­low­ing his ser­vice in the army, Ames joined the CIA where he spe­cial­ized in Mid­dle East his­to­ry and cul­ture. Ames’s major con­tri­bu­tion to the CIA was to become the first oper­a­tive to pen­e­trate the high­er lev­el of the PLO, where he built a friend­ship with Has­san Salameh, the num­ber two in the orga­ni­za­tion, whom many thought would be Arafat’s suc­ces­sor. Unlike most CIA agents, Ames eschewed recruit­ing infor­mants for pay; he believed in cul­ti­vat­ing friend­ship with his sources as a means of gath­er­ing information. 

Bird reveals the ten­sion between the CIA and the State Depart­ment dur­ing the Nixon, Ford, and Rea­gan years when U.S. pol­i­cy was not to nego­ti­ate or even meet with the PLO. Yet it is appar­ent that despite the offi­cial pol­i­cy, CIA per­son­nel like Ames did just that — Ames was sym­pa­thet­ic to the Palestin­ian cause, as was true for most of the case of­ficers assigned to the region. The book reveals the open hos­til­i­ty between the CIA and the Mossad in regard to Israel’s inva­sion of Leba­non in 1982 and in the after­math of the 1983 mas­sacre in the Pales­tin­ian refugee camps of Sabra and Shati­la by Chris­t­ian militias. 

There is his­to­ry and then there is his­to­ry that nev­er enters the his­to­ry books. Bird has used the life of Robert Ames to add a dif­fer­ent real­i­ty to our under­stand­ing of the his­to­ry of Israel’s rela­tion­ship with the U.S. dur­ing the tur­bu­lent years cov­ered in this insight­ful book.

Relat­ed content:

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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