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.

Ames thrived in that milieu, quickly gaining—largely through his on-the-ground knowledge of the region—credibility and access with senior figures in Ronald Reagan’s administration. This was especially true of George Shultz, who became Reagan’s secretary of state in 1982. Shultz was a tough, doubting customer of intelligence who was turned off by tendencies to politicize intelligence under CIA director William Casey and Casey’s protégé Robert Gates. After Gates became acting director following Casey’s death, Shultz told him, “I feel you try to manipulate me. So you have a very dissatisfied customer. If this were a business, I’d find myself another supplier.” But Robert Ames earned Shultz’s respect for his substantive command of Middle Eastern topics in general and Palestinian matters in particular, even though Shultz writes in his memoir that his distrust of Arafat and the Palestinian leadership prompted him to oppose initially even secret contacts with the PLO.

Shultz describes how on the day he was sworn in as secretary of state—and having to deal immediately with the crisis in Lebanon—his first telephone calls were to a few experts, including Ames, to help him to think fresh thoughts about the Middle East. Ames became a regular member of a small group of policy planners that Shultz assembled to shape a Reagan administration “peace plan” aimed not only at dealing with the Lebanese mess but also at building on the Camp David accords to make progress toward settling the Israeli-Palestinian issue. In these discussions Ames’s urging was mostly in the direction of more contact, more engagement and more effort to resolve the Palestinian problem.

Although Ames, while in his senior Washington jobs, occasionally made trips to New York to meet with Zein, by the spring of 1983 it had been more than four years since he had been in the Middle East. He thought that was too long; he wanted to make a trip back to the region to get a feel for the current “ground truth.” Zein was temporarily back in Lebanon and wished to set up a meeting for Ames with the new Lebanese president, Amin Gemayel, even though the security situation in Beirut had made the city, in Bird’s words, a “veritable hellhole.” Ames did not have any other official business in Beirut, but colleagues advised him to visit the CIA to avoid it looking like a snub.

Thus Ames was in the U.S. embassy building at midday on April 18, when a suicide bomber drove a pickup truck up the steps of the embassy and detonated two thousand pounds of explosives, shearing off the front of the building and causing several floors to collapse. Bird’s account of the day of the attack is detailed, wrenching and poignant. He traces the actions before the bomb went off of several of the other sixteen Americans who died with Ames (along with forty-six non-Americans) and others who were severely wounded, as well as the responses of some of the other Americans who were not at the embassy at the time of the attack. One of the latter was a CIA officer on temporary duty who would go to the morgue to retrieve a ring and a necklace from Ames’s body, which she brought back to give to his family.

The bombing of the embassy marked the beginning of a chapter in which the collateral damage to Americans of the Israeli-Arab conflict came partly through the hands of Shia extremists in Lebanon. Several causes contributed to the rise of that brand of extremism in the early 1980s and the emergence of the organization we know now as Hezbollah, but Israel’s actions and relationship with the United States unquestionably were a major factor. Bird quotes later testimony from Robert Dillon, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon at the time, who survived the blast and had to reconstitute the embassy’s operations after climbing out from under the debris. “We were very much identified with the Israelis, particularly among the Shias,” explained Dillon. “There was huge resentment of the Israelis by this time in southern Lebanon.” An even higher price in terms of the number of American dead—the highest from any terrorist attack until 9/11—came six months later when a truck bomb at the Marine barracks in Beirut killed 241 U.S. servicemen.

A narrow focus on one variety of international terrorism emanating from the Middle East had helped give rise to another brand of it. Policies of shunning or crushing a Palestinian movement that had practiced the first variety, and efforts to expel that movement from its place of exile in Lebanon, boosted the early growth of Shia terrorism. And one of the first victims was an intelligence officer who had contributed significantly to trying to break the whole deadly cycle.

Even as Arafat and the PLO were leaving their Lebanese exile for far-off Tunisia, the decisions that needed to be taken to break the cycle were not adopted. In August 1982, Shultz called in Israeli ambassador Moshe Arens to tell him that with Arafat’s departure from Lebanon imminent, it was a good time to “revitalize” the peace process. Arens disagreed: “Look, we have wiped the PLO from the scene. Don’t you Americans now pick the PLO up, dust it off, and give it artificial respiration.” It would take another decade and a change of Israeli leadership to get to the Oslo process, the signing of a declaration of principles on Palestinian self-government and the handshake on the White House lawn before a beaming Bill Clinton.

BIRD BEGINS HIS BOOK WITH a prologue about what was happening in the Near East Division of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations on the day of the handshake. Chagrined that there was no CIA representation at the White House ceremony—despite the agency’s contributions to the diplomatic achievement being observed—the division chief, Frank Anderson, organized on the spur of the moment an observance in which his own people could participate. About three dozen officers piled into a bus and rode to Arlington National Cemetery. There they visited first the grave of Robert Ames, and then the graves of the other CIA officers killed in the embassy bombing as well as of William Buckley, the later CIA station chief in Beirut who was kidnapped in 1984 and tortured before dying in captivity. The trip to the cemetery was intended as an homage to the dead as well as an inspiration to the younger officers on the bus.

Too often the contributions of people in that profession are, as on that day, insufficiently recognized by the public, although Bird’s volume is a helpful partial corrective. And too often the insights and access that intelligence officers may provide are not followed up with the necessary political decisions for them to have any beneficial effect. On the latter subject Bird cites a cynical comment from Graham Fuller, who also had a career in clandestine operations in the Middle East before becoming the NIO for the Near East and South Asia (later than Ames and earlier than I). “You have this notion,” says Fuller, “that all you need to do is get the right skinny, the right facts before the policy makers, and things would change. You think you can make a difference. But gradually, you realize that the policy makers don’t care. And then the revelation hits you that U.S. foreign policy is not fact-driven.”

In the two decades since that White House ceremony we have had Sharon’s stroll on the Temple Mount, the second intifada, the breakdown of the Oslo process and plenty of reason for pessimism about an Israeli-Palestinian peace process going anywhere. We have come full circle back to several features of Middle East conflict that prevailed in Robert Ames’s day. These include the festering Palestinian issue being an oft-cited motivation for anti-American terrorism, although the terrorists today are more likely to be Sunni than Shia. They also include an Israeli posture of all threats and pressure and no engagement with its principal adversaries of the day, including Hamas and the government of Iran; the United States has gone along with the Israeli posture on the first and broken with that posture only recently on the second. There is even a war of assassinations, including botched ones, such as the Israeli attempt to kill Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal in 1997, and successful (in the sense that the intended targets are dead) ones, such as the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists.

We do not know what work members of the American clandestine service may be doing today to try to blaze routes away from such futile and deadly paths. But we should hope that any such work, for the sake of its effectiveness, stays secret for now—and that years later the stories will be told by a biographer as adept as Bird.

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at The National Interest. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

Image: Flickr/Zach Copley. CC BY-SA 2.0.