Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politics and Prose

Byron Borger


By Byron Borger

May 16, 2014

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames Kai Bird (Crown Publishers; 2014) $26.00

In an earlier “Politics and Prose” column, I recommended James Skillen’s new book The Good of Politics. It has gotten rave reviews, although this stiff critique from James K.A. Smith is notable. Don't miss Jonathan Chaplin’s reply to Smith. It is fascinating how one book can be perceived so differently.

In this month’s review, I shift from the nature of Christian political theory to a very different book that chronicles the life of a spy. Pulitzer Prize winner Kai Bird’s The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames is thrilling, exceptionally well researched, thoroughly documented, and very well written. This new work recounts the life of the legendary Robert Ames, one of the most important operatives in CIA history. According to another Pulitzer winner, Thomas Powers, it is “the best day-by-day account of a secret intelligence career in the CIA.” Robert Baer, himself a former operative, says “The Good Spy is the best book I’ve ever read on espionage. It perfectly captures the CIA at its best.”

Robert Ames, who was killed in the bombing of the American embassy in Beirut in 1983, was known within the intelligence community for his humanistic and culturally aware approach. This stood in marked contrast to other approaches that disregarded the religious and cultural contexts of diplomacy, and were guided more by data and reductionistic notions of strategy and power. Ames was certainly a brilliant “data” man, but he was more a big-idea man and always relational. By all accounts, he was larger than life, very smart, and highly charismatic, and he loved the cultures, languages, foods, and people groups of the region where he served.

Ames got his first assignment in 1962 as a case officer in Saudi Arabia, but soon moved to Yemen. He was “officially” there with the Foreign Service and his closest associates didn’t know he was with the CIA. Sometimes his wife would move on assignment with him, although not always. (That they could maintain a strong marriage and eventually a large family is itself quite a story.) His career took him to countries all over the region, and eventually back to Washington to instruct Agency leadership and the White House. Ames watched the rise of organizations such as the PLO, Hezbollah, and Hamas, and nurtured clandestine relationships with some of their principals. He served through the hostage crisis during the Carter administration and on through Reagan (and the tumultuous Bill Casey years at the Agency.)

This absorbing narrative of the making of a CIA officer is, the publishers promise, “a uniquely insightful history of twentieth-century conflict in the Middle East.” Because of the rare trust and friendships Ames had created among a network of Arab underground factions, militias, religious leaders, and other spies and double-agents, he was able to investigate some of the most important events of the latter half of the 20th century – from the Munich Olympic assassinations and the rise of airline hijackings, to the revolution in Iran and the civil war in Lebanon. The 400-page book spans over twenty years of the career of this amazing man; the final chapters include a gripping hour-by-hour account of the Beirut embassy bombing.

Some speculate that had Ames lived, he might have healed the rift between the Arabs and the West and helped create a Middle East peace. He secretly met with those in direct contact with terrorists and avowed enemies of the West (such as Ali Hassan Salameh, and through him, Yasser Arafat) nearly brokering deals that held the potential for breakthroughs. Both men were killed by assassins, and “America’s relations with the Arab world began heading down a path that culminated in 9/11, the War on Terror, and the current fog of mistrust.”

Bird is an astute historian of the region and his copious footnotes illustrate his painstaking research, interviews, and fact-checking. He clearly appreciates Ames’s verve and sense of calling to his vocation. Ames never tired in his hope for the possibilities of peace.

Reading Bird’s account leads us to wonder whether these CIA efforts could help to build a just peace in complex areas of the world or if these covert operations undermine the official work of diplomats. While few of us are qualified to answer this, being so far removed from what transpires at Langley or the various safe houses and secret locations of covert operatives, this book sheds light on this aspect of foreign affairs.

Bird shows us that much of the behind-the-scenes meetings, correspondence, and off-the-record liaisons, while full of quiet drama and even danger, are not the stuff of James Bond or Burn Notice. He deftly mixes human interest and political history, cultural studies and diplomacy, personal biography and institutional storytelling. I commend it for all who want a thrilling history of the Middle East – episodic and set in the context of Ames dramatic efforts.

Because God cares for all careers and callings, and the just rule of law is central to a healthy, pluralistic society, learning about the large (and sometimes abused) role of the intelligence community is itself an important task for citizens. I commend this book for anyone who wants an illuminating picture of the mostly unknown world of espionage, unofficial diplomacy, and back-channel communications. And I commend it for anyone who wonders how unique philosophical orientations can work within larger bureaucratic and institutional settings that may seem aloof to the cares and passions of a humane, principled staffer. In this regard, The Good Spy hints at attributes of the good public servant – passionate, brave, colorful, religiously aware, and always with an eye for the common good.

-  Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books. Capital Commentary readers can get a 20% discount on books listed here by ordering through Hearts & Minds.

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