The Art of Cultivating Friends

By Priyanka KumarOctober 25, 2014

The Good Spy by Kai Bird

THE MORASS that is the Arab world today does not exactly invite empathy: new terrorist groups sprout every year (spurring fresh attempts to aerially eradicate them); in many places there’s an open call to kidnap Westerners; beheadings in Syria have repelled us with their medieval violence. This is the right moment to read the biography of an American who made it his life’s work to understand, with intelligence and heart, a seemingly impenetrable Arab culture, and whose career ended tragically in the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut.

The Good Spy gives a front-and-center seat to CIA officer Robert Ames’s years in the Arab world, and it doesn’t stop there. It gives insight into the inner workings of the CIA between the 1960s and the early 1980s, revisits the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during this period, and offers glimpses of the birth of the suicide-style terrorist attack that took Americans unaware in 2001. Kai Bird braids these threads into a compulsively readable book written in prose that even the CIA might approve of (more on that later). It bears mentioning that Bird asked the CIA for assistance with this book and did not get it. He based the book, primarily, on interviews conducted with Ames’s retired colleagues and with his widow, Yvonne.

Bird situates us in Ames’s professional life to such a degree that we become vested in the triumphs and disappointments of his 25-year CIA career. Bob Ames is a likable character; despite his proclivity for tinted aviator glasses and cowboy boots, he’s not flashy (unlike one of his senior officers, who relishes seeing his name in the newspaper). Ames can be ambitious and competitive, but he is also self-motivated. During an early army stint in a remote post in Ethiopia, he began to teach himself Arabic in his downtime, while the other men spent their off-duty time in bars. When he returned to civilian life in the US, Ames realized that he didn’t care for a desk-bound life. Instead, he interviewed at the CIA and let it be known that he was interested in the Middle East. His instinct was spot on. In 1962, his first assignment was to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a hardship post (where 12-year-old Bird was a neighbor and saw him shooting baskets); Ames felt right at home, as he would, later, in places like Beirut and South Yemen.

Like all spies, Ames needed to cultivate agents. Ames, however, had a knack for cultivating friends. Two of his most valued contacts — Mustafa Zein and Ali Hassan Salameh — never signed a contract and they weren’t paid in cash. Mustafa Zein, a young Lebanese businessman, had attended college in America, and Ames told him “he thought he was the most ‘qualified’ Arab capable of building a bridge across the political and cultural divides between America and the Arab world.” Zein began to affectionately call Ames “Munir — Arabic for ‘enlightener,’” and he fed Ames information because of his ideological principles. “As a Shi’ite, he sympathized with the Palestinian refugees. They too were a landless people, and like the Shi’ites of southern Lebanon they had little or no political power.”

Ames began referring to Zein in his cables back to Langley as “the Prophet,” partly because his intelligence was so often on the mark — but partly because Ames knew Zein was a fan of Kahlil Gibran’s best-selling book The Prophet. And sometimes he called him “the Catalyst.” It was a Sufi term. To be a catalyst one had to be “in this world, but not of it.” Without the Catalyst, the Americans and the Palestinians would not have come together.

In 1969, Zein introduced Ames to arguably the most important contact of his career, Ali Hassan Salameh (known as “The Red Prince”), who was Arafat’s supposed heir, the intelligence chief of Force 17, an entity that supervised Arafat’s bodyguards and was Fatah’s intelligence service. Salameh was closely associated with “Black September,” the terrorist organization responsible for the 1972 Munich massacre, the assassination of Jordan’s prime minister, and many other murders; the book disputes whether Salameh was involved in some Black September operations that led to civilian casualties. At a time when the Americans couldn’t be seen as having diplomatic or any other ties with the Palestinian Authority, Ames opened a secret channel between the United States government and the Palestinian Authority in the form of Salameh. Ames understood it was far too dangerous for Salameh to be perceived as working for the CIA, and he didn’t even try to formally sign him on. Ames made him understand, however, that it was no mean feat to have the ear of the US President, and, for a decade, until the Mossad assassinated Salameh in 1979, Ames traded valuable intelligence with him, “the kind of information that could save lives.”

Ames tried to influence Salameh to have the PLO act more like a political party — and less like a guerrilla organization — while Salameh tried to influence Washington, through Ames, to understand that it was unrealistic for U.S. policy makers to ignore the Palestinian cause.

Perhaps one reason Ames stayed in touch was because, as Bird writes, “Salameh believed that his ‘revolutionary struggle’ someday had to end at the negotiating table.” Salameh thought that after their defeat in Jordan in 1970–’71, the Palestinians were subjected to “a terrible blackout,” but that an armed struggle would bring their cause to the world’s attention; sinceas early as the late 1960s, though, Salameh wanted the struggle to finally “be resolved in a political settlement that is just and fair between us and the Israelis.”

CIA headquarters in Langley would have preferred if Ames recruited agents — got them to sign on the dotted line — rather than simply befriending them. But Ames got “hard intelligence” out of Salameh and Zein without unnecessarily endangering their lives or offending the men by putting a dollar value on their friendship. But the CIA went around him and made at least two embarrassing attempts to recruit Salameh by offering him obscene amounts of money, which only infuriated Salameh; it’s a wonder Ames did not ball up in frustration. Ames, however, was no newcomer to frustrations — he spent most of his career studying the frustrations of the Arab world.

A reader might wonder how Salameh and Zein, both men who zealously supported the Arab cause, became lifelong friends of a CIA officer.

As Mustafa [Zein] later explained, “When I met Bob in Beirut a few months later we made a pledge to be truthful to each other in a world filled with lies.” In the world of intelligence this was a rare kind of friendship. It was a partnership.

In the Arab culture, friends can be like brothers, and there’s some mistrust of the Western professional, who enters the scene to do a job, and, instead of making lasting ties, intends to make a clean exit. Westerners can also be seen as not being capable of appreciating philosophical discourse, much less initiating it. Ames defied these stereotypes. He liked to be on the ground, he liked to talk to locals, he liked philosophical discussion. Ames was genuinely interested in the Arabs he met; he took every opportunity to read about their history and culture and to speak their language.

Early in his Dhahran posting, Ames persuaded one of Aramco’s Saudi desert guides to teach him how to track herds of camels. These expeditions took him out into the desert and could be physically grueling. But for Ames, the reward was meeting the Bedu. “When the Arabs did not know him well,” wrote one of his fellow Agency officers, “they held him in slight awe for his size. When they got to know him, they loved him for his humor, his Arabic, his knowledge of their ways, his heart.”

Ames liked to read and he was occasionally derided in the agency for being an “intellectual.” Apparently, being an intellectual is a liability in a CIA career. In any case, Ames was a self-made intellectual. He came from a working-class family and liked to operate within his budget. It’s easy to feel kinship with a man who scopes out books and maps at a bookstore, doesn’t buy any, and later regrets his economy. Another label that was thrown at Ames, also derisively, was that he was an “Arabist” — a word that sounds more loaded than, say, Francophile. It seems clear, however, that Ames didn’t empathize with Arabs to the exclusion of others. Mossad officers seemed to have enjoyed his company and his lively way of narrating anecdotes at least as much as the Bedu in the desert.

In a recent revelation of CIA stylistic rules, it appears that CIA officers are asked to write memos that are “crisp and pungent.” Bird is unable, unfortunately, to quote from Ames’s memos, as they are still classified, but one imagines (and hopes) that his memos were at least somewhat voluble, more than simply crisp and pungent. His letters to his wife Yvonne indicate that he was a prolific memo writer. Ames seems to have regarded sending memos to CIA’s Langley headquarters as a measure of how much work he was getting done.

The CIA’s lack of cooperation with this book — and thus the absence of the memos — is made up by Yvonne’s sharing Ames’s letters with Bird; a single line can spring Ames to life. Posted to Yemen on a temporary-duty assignment in 1972, he missed root beer and his six kids, and he wrote to Yvonne in Reston, Virginia:

Keep reminding the kids that ‘Yes, there really is a Daddy.’”

With the exception of the last chapters, however, Bird hardly delves into Ames’s home life. The reader can’t help but wonder how difficult it was for Yvonne to parent six children while Ames was away on assignments in the Middle East. But for all his gaping absences during his children’s toddler years, and later intermittent absences, Ames seems to have been a devoted father. “He taught me everything I know,” his son said after his assassination. With the book’s focus being, ostensibly, on Ames’s work life, the reader does not get as much psychological insight about Ames, the man, as, say, about Robert Oppenheimer in American Prometheus, which Bird co-authored with Martin J. Sherwin.

Instead, Bird does a service to the literature of spycraft by showing us how things were on the ground in Ames’s time and why the kind of human-intelligence work Ames did (as opposed to technological information gathering) mattered. In prose that is crisp, pungent, and evocative, Bird takes us through some of the sobering twists and turns of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts of the era. The Phalangist-led massacre of more than 1,000 Palestinian and Shi’ite Lebanese refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps is told in unflinching detail. At one point, Ames says that there’s enough hatred in Lebanon for the whole world. The same can be said for the brutal ways in which Israelis and Palestinians went after each other in this period.

This summer’s Israel-Gaza conflict was a reminder that the cycle of violence in the Middle East only seems to ebb, without ever really losing momentum. To paraphrase (and invert) Tolstoy’s words, each tragedy is tragic in its own way. Ames began to feel increasingly frustrated by the land mine of tragedies in the 1970s and early 1980s, including the Munich massacre — the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes and a German police officer — that many American and Israeli intelligence officers believed was masterminded by Salameh. The Mossad retaliated with a string of assassinations.

Mustafa Zein has another story. “Initially, Bob [Ames] thought Ali [Salameh] was behind the Munich operation, and so he thought he could never see Ali in a million years. But later he learned otherwise from sources inside the PLO. This intelligence persuaded him that Ali was not personally responsible.” Zein insists, “Ali’s role was to hunt the Mossad; Force 17 had nothing to do with Munich.”

In the late 1970s, Ames voiced his concern about the conflict in South Lebanon, writing:

The fighting there is foolish and both the Christians and the Palestinians are being used by the Israelis and Syrians respectively to fight their battles by proxy. This is the part that is very sad. The Israelis and Syrians look on self-righteously while Lebanese and Palestinians kill each other. I know I can get the Palestinians to stop, but [the] old USG will not pressure the Israelis to stop supporting the Christians.

Ames yearned for some cooperation between the intelligence community and policy makers to help advance Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Ames’s work ethic went beyond writing memos. During the Reagan administration, he encouraged Secretary of State George Shultz to engineer an ambitious peace initiative, and he went to work to help change the status quo.

On the day Arafat left Beirut, Bob Ames was working with President Reagan’s speechwriters. Reagan delivered the speech on the evening of September 1, 1982. He began by saying bluntly that the “military losses of the PLO have not diminished the yearning of the Palestinian people for a just solution of their claims.” The president then endorsed the not very controversial notion that the Palestinians residents of the West Bank and Gaza should gain “full autonomy over their own affairs” over the next five years. According to the terms of the 1978 Camp David Accords, this should have happened long ago. But he specifically called for “the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel in the occupied territories.” That was controversial.

During the early 1980s, Ames all but burnt himself out trying to instigate some reasonable understanding between the US government and the PLO, and between the PLO and Israel. True, he was just one CIA officer. It is said that science is formed on the shoulders of many scientists. TV crews focus on presidential handshakes, but peace processes are also formed on the shoulders of many civil servants. On September 13, 1993, when President Clinton initiated the historic handshake between Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, on the day they signed a peace accord at the White House, a high-ranking CIA officer, Frank Anderson, was irritated that not a single CIA officer had been invited to the ceremony. To compensate, Anderson took a busload of new CIA officers to the Arlington National Cemetery to show them Ames’s gravesite — the first marked gravesite of a CIA officer — and to give them a pep talk about Ames’s contributions to that day.

The question of Ames’s legacy is a tricky one. “I hate to say it,” said Meir Harel, a former Mossad director general, “but Ames’ work was in vain.” But was it? The history of spycraft is littered with embarrassments (Angela Merkel’s cell phone? Really?), so it is gratifying when intelligence gained through covert means begins to influence policy in a meaningful way. Ames managed to connect the dots between the intelligence he was gathering and how it could shape policy in order to move Israelis and Palestinians closer to peace. The plan he had helped engineer did not meet with success, and, in any case, he got blown up before any real headway could be made. Still, his is an instructive and compelling story for our times when supposed good intentions, such as the Obama administration’s military presence in the Middle East, have done little to ease the messy ground reality there, while spiking our national debt by countless trillions. We continue to believe, idealistically or otherwise, that we can bomb the hell out of the bad guys and that that could be the end of the story. Ames knew better than that.

At the time of the 1983 bomb attack on the American embassy, Beirut was already laid waste by war. Ames was deeply involved in talks with Secretary Shultz about the peace initiative — whether the plan was too optimistic or not, Ames worked relentlessly on it, and he returned to Beirut after a five-year absence to get back in touch with his friends on the ground. Instead, he got assassinated on his first day back at the embassy.

Some of the world’s most admired leaders — Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and M. K. Gandhi — have been assassinated. Bob Ames was not as well known or as influential as these men, but what he stood for is perhaps his legacy: he was an American who understood Arab culture, who could befriend Arabs; he became a vital link between the PLO and the US government; he took every opportunity during the Reagan administration to move the peace process forward. We can only hope that there are more civil servants out there who are as truly vested in the interests of the regions they serve. Bird has introduced us to the best of the kind. The fruits of Ames’s labors did not ripen in his lifetime, but in the current climate of beheadings and bombing campaigns, Ames’s efforts to cultivate friends on both sides of the conflict are nothing short of inspiring. When, and if, a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace comes about, it will be undeniable that Ames lent a shoulder (and his life) to the cause.


Priyanka Kumar is an author and a filmmaker. She has a degree in International Relations from the University of Toronto.

LARB Contributor

Priyanka Kumar is the author of the widely acclaimed book Conversations with Birds (2022). Her essays and criticism have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of BooksOrion, and The Rumpus.


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