Robert Ames, the subject of Kai Bird’s forthcoming The Good Spy, was a clandestine officer for the C.I.A. in the 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s. A reserved fellow of humble beginnings, Ames became, according to a colleague, “the most effective intelligence officer I ever encountered.” A model of the moribund brand of human intelligence gathering at the dawn of gadget-driven spycraft, Ames’s talent was not for the technical proficiency and high-flying valor of James Bond movies. Rather, Ames elicited information by embedding himself in a culture and by forming personal relationships, making The Good Spy a different kind of hagiography about a different kind of spy.
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames
Ames spent his tenure focused on the Middle East. Unlike the majority of his predecessors, for whom ignorance was social convention, Ames cultivated trust in his Arab contacts by developing uncommon expertise in Arab custom. His signal achievement was a high-level intelligence “back channel” to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) at a time when the United States Government vehemently disavowed diplomatic contact with the group. His signal gift, according to Bird, was empathy, a trait that would be a boon and a burden.
Ames’s lauded cultural mastery strained the limits of political comfort, and his empathy tested his C.I.A. superiors’ notion of professional propriety. He was controversially intimate with Ali Hassan Salameh, confidant of Yasser Arafat and founding member of Black September, the group that carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, among other operations. While Salameh had a talent for avoiding direct implication by maintaining distance from such ugly elements of revolution as kidnapping and murder, any reasonable person knew that he had to endorse acts of violence at the least, if not plan or execute them. Yet Ames’s friendship with him became a crucial conduit of vital information about the P.L.O. Intelligence could only be obtained if Salameh didn’t feel he was betraying his own cause. But was Ames betraying his government’s cause? In letters to his wife Yvonne, Ames refers to Salameh as “our friend.” He exchanged gifts and shared meals with the man. He cared about him.
Ames would argue that his function as an officer was to advance the cause of peace, putting him at variance with policymakers who none too subtly indicated that the principal American role was as Israel’s ally. No surprise then that Ames was commonly criticized for his loyalty to his Arab contacts and to the Palestinian cause in general. Struggling always to “unchain Washington from its rote support of Israeli behavior,” he remained ever willing to take an unpopular stance for what he felt was right:
To say that Bob Ames was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause would be an understatement. He empathized with them deeply and admired Ali Hassan to a degree that is hard to explain. He knew Salameh had done some terrible things. “It is hard to believe our friend was what he was,” Bob wrote to Yvonne. “But that’s what comes of frustration. If the Palestinians could only have a country, they would be a great asset to the world.”
Is this empathy, or bias? Bird would ask Ames’s critics to consider it the former. It was his empathy that located the humanity of all parties in a conflict rife with culpability. All entities have committed atrocities. All have killed innocents. A “terrorist” to one person is a hero and freedom fighter to another. Ames engaged with the enemy because they were people too, thereby holding strong in a political atmosphere wherein President Reagan, having carefully read a C.I.A. memo detailing the Palestinian situation, commented: “But they are all terrorists, aren’t they?”
One might consider Ames’s staunchness heroic. He was an ambitious man, and his work produced an unparalleled mechanism by which the United States could strategically understand the Palestinian cause. But his advancement was hampered by his loyalties, and his achievements dimmed by the shadows in which they had to reside. Perhaps even worse, he faced the possibility that his enormous effort and risk was for naught. According to a fellow officer, Graham Fuller:
You have this notion that all you need to do is get the right facts before the policy makers—and things would change. You think you can make a difference. But gradually, you realize that the policy makers don’t care. And then the revelation hits you that U.S. foreign policy is not fact-driven.
Bird is careful to paint in every procedural detail of this world of contradictions, but his focus strays perhaps too broadly. At times, his remarkable acquisition and compilation of material distracts from Ames’s story. The cost and acreage of a U.S. consulate in Saudi Arabia is hardly germane to the experience of Ames’s family on arrival. The ages and cryptonyms of peripheral agents seem to be provided for the sake of flaunting access to information.
Unless their purpose is even more flagrantly superficial: an unfortunately shallow sentimentality comes across late in the book, in what Bird would consider its climax. The 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut killed 63 people, of whom 17 were Americans and eight were C.I.A. officers, including our hero, Bob Ames. Bird plots the lead-up to the explosion with cinematic descriptions of the innocent doings of soon-to-be victims. These are people the reader has not met, but is expected to become attached to upon reading, for example, about a wife calling to her husband as he left for work that fateful morning, “Come back! Kiss me again!” or an officer, presciently bothered, giving his wife a “big, dramatic kiss” before parting with her forever. We even meet Corporal Bobby McMaugh—sweet-natured, flirtatious, and entirely tangential—who was hungover that morning and almost managed to get his guard shift covered. But he didn’t, and instead he met his destiny with a “steel rod plunged through his chest.” The section marks a sudden shift toward the tragic, a manipulative, crammed humanizing that appears to be an attempt to maximize emotional impact by making the reader feel sorry for as many people as possible.
If Ames, for all his dutiful fair-mindedness, was guilty of sentimental bias, so too is Kai Bird. He exacerbates his misstep with the bombing by crafting an equally theatrical account of its aftermath. We follow the experience of Susan Morgan, a colleague of Ames, as she steps through the rubble, awaits messages that never come, identifies Ames’s body, takes his bloody wedding ring and holds it for Yvonne, prays for his soul. It is, one supposes, cathartic to detail such a resolution to our hero’s path. But if Bird is going to ask for an objective view of Ames’s controversial life—which is to say, his choices—mustn’t there be commensurate distance from his death? Susan Morgan’s and Yvonne Ames’s grief is the same grief suffered by those who have lost loved ones to violence in any conflict. Would not Ames himself acknowledge that his death was yet another among countless violent deaths visited on those who struggled to forge a path to peace? Bird dramatizes Ames’s death mawkishly, an uncouth exaltation of one tragedy among multitudes.