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June 20, 2016

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames

The Good SpyThe Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames

By: Kai Bird

The Good Spy was so good that I read it twice. Actually, I listened to it once as an audio book and read the print book, but that’s beside the point. It’s a fascinating biography of a man who, as author Kai Bird argues, may have been able to broker a better relationship between America and the Middle East nations had he lived long enough.

The titular spy is Robert Ames, a CIA clandestine officer who was one of the 63 people killed in the 1983 bombing of the American embassy in Beirut. As a teenager, Bird was a neighbor of the Ames family when his father, a Foreign Service officer, was posted in Saudi Arabia. Through dozens of interviews with Ames’s friends and family, fellow CIA operatives, former sources, and Mossad counterparts, Bird reconstructs Ames’s career, much of which is still classified, in the 1960s-1980s Middle East.

Ames was raised in blue-collar Philadelphia, and he taught himself some Arabic while in the army. He later joined the CIA where he easily garnered postings in the Middle East, becoming fluent in Arabic at a time when few CIA operatives had much knowledge of the language. Ames eventually rose in the CIA to become the Near East Director during the Reagan administration.

Bird’s portrait of Ames shows him to be a strikingly intelligent, but average guy who preferred to be home for dinner with his wife and six children. Ames respected his sources, and some became his friends (one was even invited to his son’s wedding). His most trusted sources refused to be paid by the CIA, preferring to work with the American government to bring attention to their causes. Most notably, he created a back channel to the Palestinian Liberation Organization at a time when the Palestinian cause was little known and the PLO was considered a terrorist organization.

Bird goes one step further with a discussion of the causes and aftermath of the embassy bombing in Beirut where Ames was killed, including anecdotes from survivors and fellow CIA employees. His poignant biography and insight into the undercover machinations and political realities of the era make The Good Spy a fascinating read.


Review By:  Julia Welzen