Kai Bird , The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (New York: Crown, 2014), 448 pp., $26.00.
THE SECRET WORLD OF CLANDESTINE OPERATORS and the more public world of statesmen intersect in a number of ways. The gathering of useful information through espionage is well known, but the clandestine operator can also help take action and not just inform it. Sometimes what he or she does is given a formal structure and called covert action. At other times the help is less formal, such as making contacts and opening channels of communication that the statesman cannot, for one reason or another, embrace openly or directly. An inspired and skillful operator can make important things happen.
What the operator can accomplish, however, is ultimately limited by the political constraints that apply to the statesmen for whom he or she works. Inspiration and skill can open promising avenues, but the constraints may keep them from being fully explored. The clandestine operator, exposed to dangers that typify the spy world when the action is hottest and the opportunities greatest, is as likely to experience tragedy as triumph.
Of course, the intrigue and danger of that world have provided material for an entire genre of fiction. David Ignatius launched a successful second career as a writer of spy novels with Agents of Innocence , which is based on events in the Middle East he had covered as a journalist. Set mostly in Beirut in the 1970s, the story involves American intelligence officers trying to swim through a cauldron of conflict involving Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs. Although this novel was a roman à clef, Ignatius could take the fiction writer’s prerogative of bending the story in his preferred directions.
Now Kai Bird has written a vivid nonfictional account of many of those same events. Bird demonstrated his chops as a biographer with a national-security specialty in earlier books on John J. McCloy, the Bundy brothers and J. Robert Oppenheimer. He centers The Good Spy on Robert Ames, the CIA operations officer who did more than anyone else to open a channel of communication between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at a time when the need for such a channel and the perils of opening it were both great. It is a reflection of the drama of this patch of history as well as Bird’s skill in rendering it that the book is as compelling a read as most spy novels. Not detracting from its page-turning quality is our knowledge of the protagonist’s tragic end: his death in the rubble of the U.S. embassy in Beirut when a truck bomb demolished it in 1983.
Ames is less well known to the public than several other American intelligence officers of his and earlier generations, including ones who had operated in the same part of the world and accomplished no more than he had. Probably the main reason for this difference is that those other officers lived to write their own books and Ames did not. Bird’s volume fills that gap; while he presents other perspectives he is consistently sympathetic toward the mission Ames saw himself performing and Ames’s views of the best way of doing so.
The Good Spy depicts multiple and often-conflicting considerations that go into planning and conducting clandestine operations, a diversity of opinions that often exist internally about how to conduct them and complexity in the CIA’s relations with its policy-making customers. The book also describes the personal stresses that accompany the life of a clandestine operator, including geographic separation from a spouse while trying to support a family (which in Ames’s case included six children) on a government salary.
The principal contribution of Bird’s book, however, is to illuminate earlier chapters of a political and diplomatic story that challenges U.S. policy makers to this day. It is the story of the United States being caught between Israel and its regional adversaries as those enemies have waged war against each other both openly and in the shadows. The United States has suffered as a result at a personal level—as with the victims of the bombing of the embassy in Beirut—and at the level of its own broader foreign-policy interests. The United States has been handicapped in coping with this uncomfortable situation because it often has lacked effective communications with parties that it really should talk to. That handicap is partly the product of deference to Israeli sensibilities and partly due to Americans’ own notions of who ought to be shunned as an enemy.
Bird’s reportage relies on the cooperation of Ames’s widow, including access to personal correspondence. Many of the book’s intimate looks at the perceptions and opinions of Ames come in the form of quotations from letters to his wife. Bird also conducted interviews with dozens of former officers, some identified by name and some not, who worked with Ames. The author’s only direct contact with his principal subject took place long ago and was nonsubstantive—in Bird’s youth as the teenage son of a U.S. diplomat at the U.S. consulate in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, when he lived next door to Ames. Bird knew him as a young officer who liked to play basketball with the consulate’s Marine guards.