Bird reached back to his childhood in Saudi Arabia to examine the life of his then-neighbor, a man later known as a renowned CIA spook, in The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames.
What qualities did the CIA see in Robert Ames when it offered him a job in 1960?
Ames was just a working-class boy from Philadelphia. At the time, the CIA was expanding beyond its Ivy League roots, so Ames was partly just lucky to catch the wave. He was already learning a bit of Arabic from his stint in the Army, where he had been posted to an East African signal intelligence station.
Although the CIA knew Ames had cultivated several Arab contacts, why did they doubt his effectiveness?
Ames was good at cultivating sources in places like Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. But he chafed at the rules of the game. Some of his CIA bosses complained that he rarely closed the deal, making them into a full-blown paid agent of the agency. Ames thought it was unnecessary.
What proved to be the greatest challenge for Ames: the 1972 Munich massacre or the Iran hostage crisis?
Ames was the CIA’s liaison to the White House during the Iran hostage crisis. But without a doubt, it was the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre that created Ames’s most challenging dilemma. The Munich events posed an existential, moral crisis for him precisely when he was trying to get the PLO’s Salameh into a professional relationship. All sympathy, Ames wrote, for the Palestinians, was gone.
What part did Ames play in the historic Carter peace accords at a time when the White House denied any dealings with the PLO?
On April 2, 1977, Ames had his first highly clandestine meeting with Arafat. Initially, not even his CIA superiors knew of the meeting. Only now do we understand these covert contacts between Ames and the PLO undoubtedly paved the way for the 1978-1979 Camp David accords.
Ames was the CIA’s “Mr. Middle East” early in the Reagan Administration. Did that make him a marked man?
By 1982, Ames was the CIA’s chief for all analytical intelligence about the Middle East. I don’t think that made him a personal target. Tragically, he just happened to arrive in Beirut the day before the truck bomb hit the embassy.
Can you imagine what role Ames would have played in the War on Terror if he had not been killed in the Beirut bombing?
His death at such an early age, 49 years old, left a searing gap in Washington’s knowledge about the Middle East. After his death, Washington failed on a Reagan peace initiative. It is easy to argue that this failure indirectly led to the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent War on Terror.
Did the CIA give you any help during your research?
Early on, I went to Public Affairs in the CIA and asked for some limited cooperation. They never said no, but I got nothing. But in the end, I learned a surprising amount of detail. Everyone wanted to talk about Ames, particularly those retired clandestine officers who had known him.