The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames

by Kai Bird

Digital audiobook, 2014





New York : Crown Publishers, [2014]


Drawing on extensive interviews with Ames' widow and quotes from his private letters, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer presents a brilliant narrative of the making of America's most influential and effective intelligence officer in the Middle East.

User reviews

LibraryThing member oldman
The Good Spy by Kai Bird is a biography of Robert Ames, a name not very memorable in recent history which is how he may well have wanted it. He was a spy for the CIA in the Middle East, especially with the Palestinians. He could speak Arabic and worked diligently to understand the culture of the nations in the Middle East. He rose through the ranks of the CIA organization and was known as an "Arabist" - one who had studied and learned the Arabic culture. Thus, he understood much of the motivations behind many of the action undertaken by groups in the Middle East.

His prime mode of operation was not however to do the "spy thing." He worked at befriending and understanding his contacts rather than paying them to provide information to him. This method worked for him, but was frowned upon in the organization since what he had gotten was somehow not as dependable information as paid-for information. He was able to listen to people and was a patient man leading to many friendships. He had very close friendships with some who were high in the PLO and was an advisor to presidents and Secretary of States.

History of the Middle East may have been different if he had not been killed in a terrorist bombing of the embassy in Beruit in 1983. At least the is what the book implies. The first part of the book, the early years of growing up and going to college are much like any other biography. However most of the book tells us of Ames' career as a CIA operative and gathering information about groups which the US did not have ties. That part of the book reads like a novel with several vingettes describing true activities of a spy. I give this book 4 1/2 stars.
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LibraryThing member brookeott
N.B. This book was reviewed by my husband.

To read this book is to come to understand two things. The first of these is the remarkable life and work of Robert Ames, the farthest person imaginable from the trite, “movie” version of a CIA clandestine agent. He did his work, not through nefarious undercover espionage, but through empathy, trust and friendship with the people from whom he acquired information. This was not a pose for him but true friendship, based on understanding of the positions of the friends he made. Ames was an agent called an “Arabist” by the agency for which he worked. This meant that he was informed, in sympathy with and therefore trustworthy to the people in the Arab world. It is difficult to imagine an agent more competent and more knowledgeable in his area of expertise. The more painful it is to imagine his frustration, being so often right about the situations he confronted, and yet to have had so little real effect on policy.

The second, and even more distressing thing, is to be made aware through the mirror of Ames's life and work, of the lamentable policy mistakes of both the U.S. government and the government of Israel from the 1960's through the 1980's, the period covered by the book. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but it is easy enough to see, through the agency of this book, the seeds of disaster sown by both governments – seeds which bore ominous fruit in the bombings of the Beirut U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Marine barracks and, yes, the destructions of 9/11 in New York City and Washington, DC.

To begin to understand the tortured history of the Middle East is to read this book.
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LibraryThing member doomjesse
A good companion piece. This book was written by someone who apparently lived nearby the Ames family when younger. As such it treads way too lightly about the character of Mr. Ames. In the first 60 pages about the worst that is said of Mr. Ames is that he was old fashioned and believed a woman's place was in the home, not exactly a stinging criticism of someone in the 1960s.

As far as the history of the Middle East, or at least those places Mr Ames lived, it is sketchy until you get to Lebanon. While it isn't necessary to go into great depth on Yemen or Saudi Arabia, for some readers it might help. It appears obvious the author has done a great deal of research, and knows a good deal, they just didn't convey all of it. Whether this was for brevity sake or because they didn't think it was necessary to the main story is unclear.

All of this being said, this is a good addition to Middle East history and gives a good idea of what could have been had Mr. Ames lived. If you're looking for a more complete understanding of the Middle East though, you might want to try "Pity the Nation" by Robert Fisk.
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LibraryThing member Hagelstein
A fascinating, well-written and thoroughly researched book about the life of CIA officer Robert Ames. Ames was a Middle East expert who made his by establishing contact with the PLO as an operational officer. He later moved onto the analytical side, excelled there, and continued his contacts with not only the PLO, but with many players in the region. Kai Bird does an excellent job of bringing Ames to life within the context of his profession and the events that surrounded him.

Ames was an Arabist, and was accused by some within the agency of being too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. He learned Arabic in the army and continued to improve his language skills throughout his life.

Though most of the events in the book happened over thirty years ago, it feels relevant to today. That’s in part because the Middle East continues to be one of the world’s most volatile and newsworthy political hot spots and in part due to the immediacy of Bird’s writing.

The book shows how the CIA often tried to do the right thing – such as during events leading up to the Iran Hostage Crisis – but were often thwarted by events beyond control. As Bird describes the practice of intelligence gathering, it is often “a wilderness of mirrors.”

An added dimension to the story is that Bird knew Robert Ames and his family as a child, when they lived in the same compound at the U.S. Consulate in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Somewhat ironically, Ames death in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983 was the result of the terrorism he was trying to control. But it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than as a specific target.
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LibraryThing member knittingmomof3
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird is extraordinary. If you enjoy a well-written Biography about spies and the Middle East, this is not a book to be missed.
LibraryThing member mabith
85 - [The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames] by [[Kai Bird]]

This book contained was comprised of almost entirely new information information for me. Middle-eastern history post-WWII isn't something I've studied even superficially and barring some large events (Iran Contra, Six Days War, etc...) I was in the dark.

That said, this was an excellent book to start me off in that direction. While it follows the life and work of one man, a CIA agent, it does give you a lot of background so you're able to understand his work more. The book is very well-written and incredibly readable. The were moments where I felt the author speculated a little too wildly, but I only had that reaction a couple times out of the entire book.

Though it might be said that Ames' work was in vain, I'm so glad this book was published. It's easy to become cynical, especially when it involves the US government and the middle east, but being reminded of good people who worked hard for a good cause helps. That said, I find it incredibly disturbing that for decades in the CIA being an intellectual was seen as detrimental (and I wouldn't really want to assume that attitude has changed).

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member chaz166
Times the CIA has succeeded are far less well known than when it fails. Indeed, when credit is due it is either the case that someone else gets their hard-earned plaudits or, more likely, that officially nothing happened at all. When the truth does come out, it is inevitably too late for those to receive ones proper due.The Good Spy is both comforting and heartbreaking to read.

It is comforting to know that the United States has the capacity to produce such talented practitioners of statecraft as Robert Ames, however scarce his like may seem among his profession (in their so-called wilderness of mirrors, the numbers are impossible to know), that poor boys from the streets can become regional experts of the first degree.

The book is heartbreaking when one considers how close the region had been to reaching a safer and healthier future than the path it has taken to the present. Kai Bird traces the career of Robert Ames from a windswept listening post in Ethiopia to his death in the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing, a story which convincingly demonstrates the importance of personal relationships and the tragedy of violence.

If you are interested in Intelligence, in the history of the Middle East peace process, or learning more about America's efforts abroad, you will enjoy this book.
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LibraryThing member Jonri
I won this book in a LibraryThings giveaway and I am really glad that I did. It's an extraordinary book and an absolute must read for anyone interested in US foreign policy and/or American diplomatic history.

The focus of the book is Bob Ames. Ames was a bright young man who began the study of Arabic. He was employed in a mundane job and sought something more. He joined the CIA in the early 1960s and asked to be sent to Arabia.

Ames became an Arabist. He met and befriended several members of the PLO. His superiors were sometimes critical of these relationships because Ames "failed to close the deal," i.e., to make these friends paid CIA recruits/informants .Ames kept up these contacts even when it became official US policy that no American could have any dealings with the PLO because it was a terrorist organization

As an American, reading this book is a frightening experience at times. It's hard to believe that a senior CIA official could seriously opine that language study was a waste of time for CIA agents because anyone worth recruiting spoke English. It's stunning to read that when the Ayatola Khomeini took control of Iran not a single member of the Embasssy contingent, including the CIA contingent, spoke Farsi.

It's also painful to read that the CIA tried repeatedly to bribe PLO agents who seemed to be genuinely motivated by a desire to bring peace to the Middle East and felt that reaching out to the US was essential. The idea that PLO members could be true patriots seems to have beyond the comprehension of many people in the CIA.

There are some shortcomings to the book. The author is the son of a Foreign Service officer and knew Ames when his father and Ames were posted at the same place; the author was junior high age at the time. Ames's widow was one of the author's sources.While from time to time, Bird reminds us that some people said Ames was highly ambitious and competitive, overall the tone of the book is positively reverential towards Ames, to a degree that doesn't seem warranted by the facts about him which appear in the book.

Ames was killed in the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut. Others died too. It was the biggest loss of CIA agents the US had ever experienced.

On balance, it appears that Iran is responsible for the attack although guilt has never really been proven. Ironically, the person who may have been responsible for planning the attack now lives in the US, having cut a deal with the CIA. Bird finds this morally unacceptable. I'm not sure that Ames himself would have.

This really is a good book and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
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LibraryThing member bogopea
Accurate portrayal of CIA and USG in an Embassy overseas. Impeccably researched. Informative, interesting read.
LibraryThing member boodgieman
Until his death in the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut, Robert Ames was the premier CIA operative in the Middle East. His colleagues and superiors respected his depth of knowledge regarding Arab culture (he was fluent in Arabic, something not as common among American officials in the Middle East as one would expect or hope), his gregariousness, and his basic decency. Ames was much sought after for briefings at the highest levels of government, including Secretaries of State from Carter through Reagan and even President Reagan himself. Nevertheless, some considered him a throwback to an earlier time when spying relied less on technology and more on language skills, personal relationships, and (perhaps most important) knowing when to listen. The bombing that killed Ames and 62 others is generally considered to be the beginning of the terror campaign by Hezbollah and other Arab extremists against the U.S. Bird's engrossing biography covers the events of Ames life up to the bombing and concludes with a plausible unraveling of the individuals and groups responsible (some information surrounding the investigation is still classified, but certain relationships and linkages are known). The story of the bombing itself is told with suspenseful and heartrending immediacy. Robert Ames was truly "the good spy" who wanted more than anything to see peace come to the Middle East and spent his career working to that end. Highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member mnm123
I received this book in exchange for a review. The good spy is a compilation from many sources of the life of Robert Ames. I found the information very intriguing. The life of a spy isn't really as glamorous as we believe. Robert Ames had to work very hard to accomplish his job, and based on accounts from others wanted very badly to solve the Middle East peace problem. He appeared to care deeply about the plight of the Palestinians'. I was riveted the moment I opened this book all the way to the end. I highly recommend this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member foof2you
An interesting book about an interesting life. I must admit that i did not know much about the Middle East conflict and what I did know was what i saw on the news.

This book has opened my eyes to the failure of American foreign policy in the region of the world.

A really good book about a man and his work in a difficult area of the world and how things might have been different if only...… (more)
LibraryThing member chicobico
Robert Ames, CIA’s intelligence director for the Near East and South Asia, was killed on April 18, 1983, in a truck-bomb attack on the US embassy in Beirut. His death cut short a distinguished career with the agency. He was the first agent to establish a viable back channel contact with the Palestine Liberation Organization and, by the 1980’s, was considered the nation’s leading intelligence expert on the Mideast.

In The Good Spy, Kai Bird traces the life of Robert Ames from his youth in a working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia, through his graduation from LaSalle University, his service in the Army Signal Corps, and his career with the CIA from 1960 to the time of his death. Bird’s book provides a fascinating but sobering account of US relations with the Arab world during Ames’ tenure. It also offers interesting insights into how four Presidents and six CIA Directors responded to the complexities and hazards of Mideast politics.

The book’s narrative seems to accelerate as it moves forward from Ames’ promising exchanges with his PLO contacts to the tragic massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon refugee camps in 1982, the truck bombing of the US embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, and the subsequent formation of Hezbollah. Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize-winning co-author of American Prometheus, has produced another significant book that will help us not only appreciate the life of a very good spy, but also understand the history that has led to the current impasse in the Mideast. His book is highly recommended for anyone interested in these subjects.
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LibraryThing member cweller
Great book on the remarkable life of Robert Ames, a Middle East expert who worked with the CIA from 1960 to the time of his death in '83. Impeccably researched, 'The Good Spy' is an extraordinary and well written account and a must read for anyone who is interested in the Middle East and U.S. Intelligence in the region.
LibraryThing member btuckertx
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird was a pretty decent book, if you take into account the constrictions apparently placed upon any contemporaneous espionage book. The book went to great pains to detail the early life of Mr. Ames, his married life, but frustratingly little about his exploits in the Middle East - I know, I know, what did I expect?

The second half of the book, though, picks up considerably. Mr. Ames was one of the first, and perhaps the first, American spy to develop a back channel into the opposition camp during the 1970's and '80's. Working with compassion and respect, he developed deep relationships with several well-placed people associated with terrorist groups.

Well researched, it's obvious the author has a deep respect for Mr. Ames, and the reader will as well. I recommend this book for anyone interested in US relations in the Middle East.
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LibraryThing member bjmitch
This is my favorite kind of nonfiction. It's written for a general audience but is thoroughly researched, with complete footnotes in the back for readers who would like to pursue the subject further. In this particular biography there is a personal touch in that the author actually knew his subject when he was young and he had the cooperation of Ames' widow and children. Kai Bird is an author I will seek out in the future for highly readable history.

Robert Ames was a CIA agent who was killed in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Ames' death was a great loss for CIA operations in the Middle East because he was a common sense agent with friends in all the right places. His chief source of information for many years was a VIP in the PLO. The CIA kept insisting he formally recruit the man but he had the good sense not to do it. That would have put the man in terrible danger and ruined their relationship.

The depth of his friendships with Arab figures is shown by the fact that one of them was a huge help to Bird in his research for this book. Ames defied CIA protocol from the beginning as he immersed himself in Arab language and culture. For reasons I still don't understand, such knowledge was discouraged and certainly friendship was out of order. Ames would drive out through the desert, stopping to talk with Bedouin tribes. They would invite him for a meal, the worst part of which was that as the honored guest he was given the eye of the goat to eat. Ames hated that but he ate it rather than insult his host.

We learn an amazing amount about the culture and customs of that part of the world, something we know is terribly important because of almost constant conflict among religious and nationalist organizations there. We also get a hint of the kind of life his family had. He and his wife didn't tell their children he was CIA until the oldest daughter was grown, and then only because both of them were taking a trip that could be dangerous and someone needed to know who to contact and how. It all brings Robert Ames back to life as a man who was brilliant at his job, and only his family surpassed his dedication to that job in importance.

Highly recommended
Source: LibraryThing win
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LibraryThing member bowedbookshelf
Kai Bird believed Robert Ames exemplified the best of American values: sober, diligent, thoughtful, and fair. Ames was an enthusiastic family man, and despite being occasionally short of funds, he wanted a big family. When stationed in Washington, he often kept regular work hours, leaving at the same time every morning and arriving home in time to listen to music and read a bit before dinner with the family. When someone keeps a regular schedule, it is difficult to imagine what goes on in the hours he or she is gone, and Ames’ children never knew until his death that he was not the Foreign Service officer he purported to be.

Ames’ career as a covert CIA agent spanned the decades from the nineteen fifties to the eighties, when he was killed in the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing. Outside of his personal life, Robert Ames has always been a device. During his lifetime he was a device for listening to and interpreting activities in the Middle East and a means by which to influence events. Now he is the contextual device by which Kai Bird personalizes and focuses his history of the modern Middle East featuring cameos by important players.

I’m not sure how I convinced myself I needed to read another book about spies. I must have been in the midst of Ben McIntyre’s compulsive read, A SPY AMONG FRIENDS, when I agreed to take on this true tale of the American spy Robert Ames who was operating about the same time and same location as the infamous British mole Kim Philby. After finishing McIntyre’s book and PBS documentary and doing the attendant research, I admit to exhaustion with the idea of spies. I have a better idea of what they do but I can’t say I am particularly impressed with what they accomplish.

Spies often feel the same way. Bird quotes letters from Ames to his wife in the 1980’s in which he says he feels he has written the same cables over and over during his career and “nothing seems to change.” Of course, he was writing of the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict which even today is no closer to resolution, despite Ames’ help in preparing the ground for the 1993 PLO-Israeli Oslo Accords.

It is tempting for us civilians to imagine the CIA as an agency of super-humans, knowledgeable and capable beyond the capabilities of ordinary folk. But however good they are, these individuals operate in a deadening bureaucracy peopled with outsized egos holding differing opinions, and they may be held hostage by swift changes in policy that come with newly elected officials and administrations. Bird explicates the environment in which Ames navigated, introducing us to Ames’ superiors (Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, among others) and presidents (including Reagan and Bush), and concludes that everyone gets cynical after years in the Agency. Bird reports that some CIA officers are amazed when academics are found to have “incredible understanding” of political scenery overseas despite having no access to confidential information or restricted cables. (!)

Robert Ames was an Arabist. Bird paints him as a serious man, not given to frivolity or drinking and carousing, in contrast to many operatives at the time (the British esprit and bonhomie appeared to revolve around alcohol). Ames had an earnestness about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue that he acted upon by forming a liaison with a close associate of Yassar Arafat, the flamboyant Ali Hassan Salameh, with whom he corresponded throughout his years studying the Middle East. Bird goes to great lengths to cast doubt on Salameh's involvement in the 1973 Munich Massacre at the Olympics. Ames was sympathetic to the Arab position and distrusted the leadership in Israel, and apparently did not believe Salameh would take such an action. Bird, the son of two Foreign Service Arabists, appears to agree with this view. Bird writes that “all the Foreign Service officers who spent any time in the Middle East felt a deep sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians.”

Bird writes in detail about the changing alliance of Arab factions and how one group would morph into another with the death or sidelining of one or another key player. With this background we can chart in hindsight the growth in strength of radicalist factions in the Middle East, and locate particular times when things might have been steered differently (other than eliminating people we disagree with). What remains chilling is how little we know despite our “intelligence,” and how little we affect for good the larger picture.

Perhaps Robert Ames deserved his own book; I thought Bird’s final chapters in which he places Ames’ work in the context of larger happenings in the Middle East more instructive than focus on a bookish Arab specialist bushwhacking the CIA bureaucracy. I am suspicious of people called “fine examples of American values” simply because America has so often proven herself tone deaf and ignorant rather than a courageous and open-minded example of democracy at work. I am not sure, however, that Bird was lauding the man Ames so much as showing us that his type of covert CIA officer, the learned specialist who dignifies with his consideration positions our political leadership claims to oppose, may be a better risk for us as a country to take than to have extrovert, fast-talking non-specialist operatives offering our stated enemies monetary bribes (in English!), thinking they’d “recruited” them. Probably both are necessary, if only to keep one type from thinking they "know it all," though I often wonder about the use of the Agency for intelligence-gathering anyway. Surely a giant bureaucracy is hardly the way to obtain secrets.

In the end, I found I was more interested in the broader context of Ames’ work in the Middle East, and in the final chapters after the Beirut bombing, Bird expands from Ames to give us the larger context. It is in these chapters that all the personal attempts by various individuals acting in their own circles come together to create a drama large enough for the world stage. All the personalities begin to make sense and we see places we might have had a moment for rapproachment. One could argue that Ames died without accomplishing his dream of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict but that Kai Bird’s retrospective of his work in context shows us both the errors and the possibilities for the future.

That this book is written today may be another indication that the tide of public opinion is shifting in America regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. Historians and reporters may write unpopular positions but they usually don’t get recognition unless there is a groundswell of appreciation of their arguments. My guess is that the tide is (finally) shifting to support of the Palestinian cause. With this history we can see the outlines of American policy in the Middle East in the past fifty years. Bird makes no excuses for Israeli intransigence on the issue of a Palestinian state and instead highlights Israel’s role and responsibility for current conditions in the Middle East. There are indications the American public is ready to hear this argument. Our government will come along when we do.

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LibraryThing member shazjhb
This is an excellent book if somewhat biased. However, the history of the Arab Terrorist is explained in some detail. Some "facts" are actually opinions. It would be a useful book for all the presidential candidates to read. The author is correct that things are not working out but beside him insisting the Israelis need to do more there is no idea of what needs to be done specifically. I suppose talking about the current split in Palastians would be too difficult. He also did not discuss the many times that PLO were offered a complete withdrawal including Jerusalem and even this was refused.
Besides the politics the story of Robert Ames was amazing and perhaps if he had not died things would be different.
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LibraryThing member gmmartz
As an active consumer of spy novels, I couldn't wait to get my hands on The Good Spy. It's always interesting to me to see how the real world that I'm not privy to matches up with what a fiction writer serves up. In this case, I learned quite a bit, particularly in how the major players in the Middle East played with one another in that part of the world. At a more granular level, I was able to follow the career of a guy who had a significant impact on events in the Middle East and could have had an even greater effect had he lived.

Robert Ames seemed to be a man generally good at heart who operated with people who weren't, some of whom were either real terrorists or who would be considered terrorists because of their beliefs. This, to me, was the crux of the book- the tension between a 'good' CIA man operating in the gray areas surrounding the Israeli Mossad, the PLO, Hezbollah, his own organization and country, and the various conflicts and negotiations that occurred in that time frame.

The book is a little slow, not extremely well written, and the writer does use a lot of speculation and hearsay, so those criticisms are valid. On the other hand, The Good Spy is a fascinating look at how real-world 'spying' actually works. It also provides extremely interesting inside views of important periods and moments in history. It's far removed from James Bond or even Jason Bourne, but that makes it a little more believable to me.
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LibraryThing member mmmjay
The Good Spy is the most well written book I have ever had the pleasure to read. CIA agent Robert Ames comes to life in Kai Bird's meticulously documented narrative about the Ames' passion for the Middle East and his lifelong quest to bring a lasting peace to the region. I learned more of the history of the region and its people than 20 history books (or more) could attempt to describe.… (more)



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