The Secret Life of Robert Ames

April 22, 2014 Topic: SecurityIntelligence Region: Lebanon

The Secret Life of Robert Ames

The story of the American spy's contacts with the PLO underscores the necessity of talking to adversaries.

This sort of relationship suited Ames as well. He was not a standout operations officer as measured by the number of fully recruited spies he put on the roster. He believed that useful information often could be more easily obtained, and useful business more readily conducted, by maintaining a relationship on the basis of friendship and parallel interests rather than formal recruitment. This outlook was at times a source of disagreement between Ames and other officers in the clandestine service at the CIA. But it would govern Ames’s dealings with Zein for the rest of his life.

BY FAR THE MOST IMPORTANT of the contacts that Zein would facilitate was with a young, energetic, flamboyant, cosmopolitan, womanizing Palestinian named Ali Hassan Salameh. Salameh was a member of the Revolutionary Council of Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, the largest of the resistance groups under the umbrella of the PLO. Salameh’s principal responsibility was to try to develop Fatah’s nascent intelligence organization, later called Force 17, into a professional intelligence organization. That role by itself would obviously have made Salameh of interest to the CIA. But during the 1970s Salameh’s broader influence within Fatah grew to the point that some considered him second in importance only to Arafat himself.

According to Bird’s account, there would not be a recruitment, and Salameh would not be a paid agent any more than Zein. But when Zein brought Ames and Salameh together, it was the start of a decade-long relationship that provided a hidden and tempered (but important and otherwise missing) means of communication between the Palestinian nationalist movement and the United States. The incentive that Ames held out to Salameh for having the relationship was nothing material but instead the argument that, as Bird puts it, “You Arabs claim your views are not heard in Washington. Here is your chance. The president of the United States is listening.” Ames, the U.S. point man at the start of this relationship, kept a hand in it even after he moved on to other assignments.

The extent to which the president of the United States really was listening is one of the factual lacunae that Bird acknowledges and does not attempt to fill with a made-up narrative. He assesses that the CIA director at the time, Richard Helms, would very likely have informed Richard Nixon and his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, of the contact. Kissinger says nothing of this in his memoirs, but Bird’s assessment is probably correct; however much distrust of the PLO there was at the White House, the channel was too important and potentially useful to disregard.

From the perspective of today, two decades after Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands on the White House lawn, regular communication between the Palestinian leadership and the U.S. government seems unexceptional and uncontroversial. The absence of such communication would be an anomaly that disables U.S. diplomacy on a subject that is very important to U.S. interests. But Ames established his channel more than two decades beforethe handshake, when any official and openly acknowledged U.S. contact with the PLO was considered out of the question. The organization was viewed as a manifestation of international terrorism, to be shunned or combated rather than accepted as an interlocutor or the instrument of a legitimate nationalist aspiration.

Underlying this American posture was intense Israeli opposition against contacts with the PLO. Israel spared no effort, up to and including assassination, to prevent or destroy any U.S. channel with the Palestinians. Salameh thus became a prime Israeli target. Probably the first Israeli attempt to kill him was in 1971, using a Mossad-constructed letter bomb. Salameh—whom Zein says was warned by Ames to be wary of letter bombs—did not open it and instead had it x-rayed.

The kidnapping and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics by an offshoot of Fatah called Black September accelerated the Israeli assassination campaign against Palestinians (with Black September striking back, with less effectiveness, against the Israelis). The Israelis, among others, believed that Salameh had a role in the Munich incident; Bird examines the evidence and concludes that he probably did not. But it didn’t matter as far as Salameh’s eventual fate was concerned, because the Israelis had their other reasons to kill him, including their determination to abort any dialogue between the United States and the PLO. They tried again to do so in 1973 but bungled the attempt when a Mossad hit team, in a case of mistaken identity, shot an innocent Moroccan waiter to death in Norway. The negative publicity from this incident led the assassination teams to stand down temporarily.

BY THE MID-1970s the value of doing business with Arafat and the PLO had become increasingly apparent—including to Henry Kissinger, who built on the Salameh channel by authorizing some other secret contacts with PLO emissaries. By 1974 Arafat had shut down Black September, the Palestine National Council had adopted a “ten-point plan” that implicitly accepted Israel’s existence and marked a step toward a negotiated two-state solution, and the Arab League had recognized the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” For Ames it was a time of hope and of satisfaction in his own role in generating some diplomatic movement. These sentiments were tempered by his disappointment that the movement was only slow and incremental. The disappointment was well founded; in retrospect, it is hard to see how much of the diplomacy that would wait until the 1990s should not have been accomplished in the 1970s.

On the U.S. side the slowness was due partly to hang-ups about what the PLO should say explicitly and not just implicitly. It was also partly due to uncertainty over the shape that Palestinian self-determination might take, and especially what the implications would be for the kingdom of Jordan. The idea of Jordan becoming “the Palestinian state” was still out there, even though the PLO’s ten-point plan also implicitly recognized that a separate Jordan was there to stay. U.S. policy makers as well as intelligence officers had differing sentiments about this, which tended to correlate with who had been their partners in doing business—and striking up friendships. Ames was sympathetic chiefly to the Palestinians. A different perspective, one sympathetic to the Jordanian monarchy, can be found in the posthumously published King’s Counsel by Jack O’Connell, who had been the CIA’s station chief in Amman and a longtime confidant of the late king Hussein.

Meanwhile, the resistance to talking directly with the PLO persisted. When Jimmy Carter negotiated language in the Camp David accords that tentatively addressed Palestinian political rights, he was negotiating with an Egyptian president, not a Palestinian. Carter’s ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, was forced to resign in 1979—ten years after the first meeting between Ames and Salameh—when Israel leaked word that Young had held a single meeting with the PLO’s representative to the UN.

The Israelis had not forgotten Salameh. They finally got their target in 1979 with a remotely detonated car bomb that also killed eight other people in a Beirut street. Bird’s account tells us that the Mossad agent who did the detonation, a woman who went by the name Erika Chambers and is living today in Israel, was chosen for the mission because in practice sessions she did a better job of pushing the button at the right moment than the men did.

Even with Salameh dead, the usefulness to the United States of secret contacts with the PLO continued. The usefulness became all the greater with the outbreak in 1975 of civil war in Lebanon, to which the PLO had retreated after King Hussein forcibly pushed it out of Jordan. U.S. diplomats and other Americans in Lebanon became partly dependent on the Palestinians for their security. The mess and danger in Lebanon became messier and more dangerous with multiple Israeli invasions of the country. This was especially true of the war of 1982, which featured Ariel Sharon’s relentless offensive to try to crush the PLO once and for all, and the Israelis’ firing of flares that enabled Christian militias to do by night the work that became known as the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Amid the chaos, the United States still had the handicap of not being able to deal openly and directly with the PLO. Bird describes the heroic and necessarily convoluted efforts of the U.S. diplomat Philip Habib to negotiate the departure of the PLO from Lebanon, amid warnings from Sharon that he would send his army into West Beirut if Habib talked directly to any PLO official.

BY THIS TIME ROBERT AMES HAD made a career change that partly reflected his modest prospects, despite his accomplishments, for further advancement in the clandestine service; some in the service considered him “too intellectual,” even though he had no graduate degree. Ames sought, and was appointed to, the position of national intelligence officer (NIO) for the Near East and South Asia. The NIOs are senior officials at the National Intelligence Council responsible for coordinating analysis and policy support across the intelligence community for their regional or functional subject. I did some work for Ames at the council and later would fill the same NIO position myself. A more unusual move was when Ames was later made, for what would be the last year and a half of his life, director of the CIA’s analytic office covering the Near East and South Asia. He had exchanged the streets of the Middle East for corridors in Washington as his operating milieu.