Thinking Aloud: “The Good Spy”

May 25, 2014 by Darius 

Last week, I saw author Kai Bird discuss his new biography The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Legendary CIA Agent Robert Ames.  Prior to his death in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Ames was one of the CIA’s few agent-analysts who understood the Arab world.  Among other things, Ames created and maintained a backdoor channel to the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization years before official US policy permitted such contact, paving the way for later diplomatic breakthroughs.

Robert Ames was the son of a Philadelphia steelworker and fell in love with the Middle East during a stint in the Army signal corps in what is today Eritrea.  He joined the CIA in 1960 after failing the Foreign Service entrance exam.  He was first posted to the Middle East in 1962, to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia (where, incidentally, he lived next door to the author, who was 10 years old at the time).  

By the late 1960s, Ames was posted in Beirut.  At the time, the US considered the Palestinian Liberation Organization to be a terrorist group and banned official contact between the US government and the PLO.  But in December 1969, Ames saw an opportunity to establish a connection with the PLO.  He was introduced by a mutual Lebanese friend to Ali Hassan Salameh, head of the PLO’s intelligence arm.  The two men quickly became friends themselves and remained so for a decade.

The relationship between Salameh and Ames quickly began to bear fruit.  For example, during the Lebanese Civil War, Salameh’s PLO forces protected the US Embassy in Beirut.  In 1973, though, Israel began trying to kill Salameh.  Israel had two reasons for wanting Salameh dead: first, they suspected his involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympic attacks (though Kai Bird’s research suggests Salameh was probably not involved personally).  Second, Israel knew Salameh was in contact with the CIA.  Israel wanted to kill off, literally, any possible rapprochement between the US and PLO.  Ames, for his part, tried to keep Salameh alive – for example, he warned Salameh that Israel’s Mossad would be targeting him with letter bombs.  (Shortly afterward, a letter addressed to Salameh exploded.)  In 1979, despite Ames’s best efforts, Salameh was killed when Israeli agents detonated a massive car bomb on his route to his Beirut office.  That was the end of Ames’s relationship with the PLO.

Other assignments during the 1970s took Ames to Iran, where he returned to try to cool tensions after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.  His overtures came at a time when the Iranian regime was radicalizing, though, and failed.

In 1983, Ames was in Beirut when a Lebanese Shia militant group with ties to Syria and Iran drove a truck bomb into the US Embassy.  Ames was among the 63 people killed.  Despite the death toll, the US embassy bombing remains relatively forgotten, eclipsed by the bombing of the Marine barracks six months later.

On the day that President Clinton hosted Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat to commemorate the signing of a peace framework on the lawn of the White House in 1993, a group of CIA personnel went to Arlington Cemetery to visit the grave of Robert Ames.

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