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The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames [Hardcover]

Kai Bird
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

19 Jun 2014
The Good Spy is Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kai Bird’s compelling portrait of the remarkable life and death of one of the most important operatives in CIA history – a man who, had he lived, might have helped heal the rift between Arabs and the West.
On April 18, 1983, a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people.  The attack was a geopolitical turning point. It marked the beginning of Hezbollah as a political force, but even more important, it eliminated America’s most influential and effective intelligence officer in the Middle East – CIA operative Robert Ames.  What set Ames apart from his peers was his extraordinary ability to form deep, meaningful connections with key Arab intelligence figures. Some operatives relied on threats and subterfuge, but Ames worked by building friendships and emphasizing shared values – never more notably than with Yasir Arafat’s charismatic intelligence chief and heir apparent Ali Hassan Salameh (aka “The Red Prince”). Ames’ deepening relationship with Salameh held the potential for a lasting peace.  Within a few years, though, 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, who as a child lived in the Beirut Embassy and knew Ames as a neighbor when he was twelve years old, spent years researching The Good Spy.  Not only does the book draw on hours of interviews with Ames’ widow, and quotes from hundreds of Ames’ private letters, it’s woven from interviews with scores of current and former American, Israeli, and Palestinian intelligence officers as well as other players in the Middle East “Great Game.”
What emerges is a masterpiece-level narrative of the making of a CIA officer, a uniquely insightful history of twentieth-century conflict in the Middle East, and an absorbing hour-by-hour account of the Beirut Embassy bombing.  Even more impressive, Bird draws on his reporter’s skills to deliver a full dossier on the bombers and expose the shocking truth of where the attack’s mastermind resides today.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group, Division of Random House Inc (19 Jun 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307889750
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307889751
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 17 x 4.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 16,763 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars The history through the life of a great man 29 July 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I've been always interested in the history of Middle East politics and I've read many books on the topic. However this book is really different. The author tells the history of a long-lasting conflict through the experience of a man. His experience as an agent, a husband, a father, a friend. There is a complexity very well highlighted in the political scene that is reflected into the social and human behaviour. I liked the book from the first page and I finally admired the life of Robert Ames. Highly recommended
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5.0 out of 5 stars More than brilliant 16 July 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It was dispatched and arrived very promptly. The book itself is absolutely great, I took me a week to finish it and found it to be one of the best books I have ever read. Really interesting account of the life of a CIA officer and the events in the Middle East during these years. Also, I got the rare feeling of reading something rather unbiased (almost never happens with US authors).
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4.0 out of 5 stars A highly informative read 7 July 2014
By Esther
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is the biography of a CIA agent who became an accomplished arab expert and befriended people close to Arafat and other arab leaders. Having read a good review of this in the Spectator and as I am currently living in Jordan, I was keen to read it. At first I was a little disappointed as it did not seem to be terribly well written - full of staccato sentences and facts presented in illogical order. This however was confined to the 'soft' biographical detail - once it got into the political stuff it became much more polished and was in fact fascinating. It charts the beginning of tensions between the US and Iran, and reminds us of the detail behind such events as the hijacking of aircraft by the People's front for the Liberation of Palestine, the contra scandal and the US Embassy bombing in Beirut. The Palestinian conflict is presented sympathetically and it is honest about the duplicity engaged in by the West. I am glad I persevered through the early pages as I learned a great deal and I recommend it to anyone who wishes to make sense of what is happening today in the middle east.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  158 reviews
59 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History's bitterest vintage will always be What-Might-Have-Been 10 April 2014
By Nathan Webster - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This is a difficult book to review because it will encourage reactions that have nothing to do with the book's material at all, but rather how a reader applies this knowledge to the present day. So it's easy to go off on tangents, which I couldn't avoid as I wrote this review. The fact that it did connect so well to the present day is a large part of why it deserves five stars. This is not dusty history - this had a direct bearing on who we are today.

I would consider this less a biography of Robert Ames than it is using the story of Ames to tell the much larger story of the Mid-East in the 1970s-80s, an era we've basically forgotten. There were lessons that we SHOULD have learned from that time, but we chose other directions.

Ames' story is intriguing and nuanced - he was navigating the difficult backrooms of diplomacy, trying to build relationships with high-level PLO officials that he was actually barred from talking with (unless they were paid 'agents' of the CIA). At the same time, Israel intelligence was actively opposed to these contacts, and was essentially trying to subvert any US moves toward normal interactions with PLO figures that Israel considered terrorists.

A parallel (and this is a tangent) is Nixon's approach to China, which put the Soviet Union on its heels a little bit. Israel clearly did not want to find themselves as the lesser member of a three-party discussion. So while discussions between the PLO and the US could have helped those nations/organizations come to an understanding, that was not in Israel's interest.

Readers who think history began on Sept. 12, 2001 would be well-advised to read carefully the history of Beirut in the 1980s, and some questions will be answered about how we found ourselves in the mess we're in.

By invading Lebanon to evict the PLO (after Ames efforts were flatlined by the asassination of his main PLO contact, Hassan Salameh), Israel created a power vacuum that led to the massacre of some 2,500 civilians in a Palestinian refugee camp. To put that in perspective, it's the same number of Palestinians, Shi'a Muslims, etc. as the number of US civilians who died on 9/11. What do you think the response to that would be? We have the answer - the destruction of the US embassy in Beirut that killed Ames and many others, and later the 241 Marines who died in the Marine barracks bombing.

Of course, that was 1982-83 - plenty of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel had occured for decades before that. Ames' contact, Salameh, was suspected of involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics attack - so of course Israel would target him.

It's the perfect definition of a circle of violence, and we're still living in it today.

I think author Kai Bird does an amazing job of taking the reader through this convoluted and epically frustrating history. I think he leans a bit too heavily toward "what might have been" arguments that I'm not sure history supports. In the 1980s, neither Israel or the PLO were ready to engage each other - add to that Iranian hatred of the US that dated back to our support of the despotic Shah, and then add Syrian nervousness at a Christian, possibly Israel-aligned government on their border, and I don't think peace was coming - whether Ames had lived or not.

Another connection to the present day - while there's all sort of raving about "Benghazi!" a read of this book reveals the kidnapping and killing of several US diplomats. It happens. But, the US government - for much of it, the Ronald Reagan-led government - did little or nothing in response. Mainly because they didn't know who to target. While there was SOME response to the bombing of the Marine barracks, it was limited to salvos from the USS New Jersey - hardly an invasion of two countries like post-9/11. In fact, one response was a screwed-up car bomb that killed 80 civilians - and those casualties led to the dismantling of the entire 'revenge' effort; compare that to how we attack with drones today, where common civilian casualties are barely discussed. Do we think there will never be a cost? That the 'other side' is simply going to forget?

The 70s-80s governments had plenty of flaws, but Nixon, Carter and Reagan recognized that the US had global responsibilities and had to keep things in perspective - the nation could not go off half-cocked on crazed foreign misadventures. We had to take our lumps and navigate the rough water as best we could. Unfortunately, that lesson in perspective and unintended consequences was ignored by subsequent administrations; and look what happened.

Of course, had we responded more forcefully in 1983, maybe Bin Laden never rises above a local despot in an Afghan mountain town. Or maybe we bomb Soviet ally Syria and it escalates into tactical nukes over Europe. You never know.

This is a great book, not just for the upclose look at an unheralded US agent, but for a history to which we would do well to pay better attention.
30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good spy story for the spy-averse reader 31 Mar 2014
By N. B. Kennedy - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I wanted to read this book solely for its chapter on the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing. I've read several accounts of the Marine barracks bombing that same year, but nothing in much depth of the embassy tragedy. I have to admit I turned to this chapter first and then went back for the backstory.

As always, I am amazed when a journalist can put his or her hands on so much material that a story like this one can be told almost minute by minute. I'm not sure any of us truly understands the copious amounts of dogged research that goes into a book whose writing seems effortless and a story whose tension mounts with every sentence. I am a new fan of Kai Bird!

When I went back to start at the beginning, I was surprised at how quickly the author's story pulled me in. I'm not a reader of spy fiction or a viewer of spy movies -- I'm so dense when it comes to figuring things out that I'm usually lost and feeling grouchy within minutes. Add to that the difficulty of understanding the politics of the Middle East, and this book could have been a tough slog. But through his focus on the personalities that populate this complex world, Mr. Bird spins a tale not only of intrigue but also of down-to-earth, day-to-day life that will appeal to readers even as clueless as me.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars superb history fused with intrigue and irony 30 Mar 2014
By John E. Drury - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Bird's book was thirty (30) years in gestation. Only after the 1983 Embassy bombing was it that CIA officers retired and talked, that lawsuits were filed and the laws of government omerta were commendably ignored and a dogged American journalist, like Kai Bird, dug into and pieced together this mosaic of a credible history of a courageous American in the chaotic violence of Middle East in the 1980s.

Centered on the life and death of Pennsylvania born, Robert Ames, an Arabist, it is more that a true life story of his large, loving family, his time in CIA, his promotions, its bureaucracy, it is about the deadly intrigue and inexplicable irony endemic to Beirut and its environs. Bird "names names," with small precise cameos of the important players. Cautious in his accusations, he offers backup for those attenuated threads and suspicions, adding readability to this three hundred (300) page book.

The chapter on the deadly April 1983 Embassy is action-packed and painful to read. Ames and sixteen (16) other Americans died. Bird draws much from the non-governmental writing, candid interviews, fiction ("Agents of Influence" by David Ignatius and John le Carre') and existing journalism. His last full chapter is especially chilling as he weaves into the conclusion - as a fitting coda of irony and outrage - the life and "mean" death of a Shi'a terrorist, spiced up with the suspicion of American payback for the bombing, and ending with the recent American sanctuary for an Iranian killer and plotter of the bombing.

Though titled "The Good Spy," one wonders if it means Ames was a "good" man (which he surely was), or, as a good "spy," as caricatured in le Carre's mold of George Smiley, infused with the tradecraft's moral ambiguities as to right or wrong.
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars DISCONNECTED 9 May 2014
By JoeV - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Robert Ames was a CIA analyst/operative, an "Arabist", specializing in the Middle East during the height of the Cold War. In 1983 he was tragically killed - along with 62 others - when a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with explosives into the American Embassy in Beirut. This is his biography which is at times fascinating and prophetic, but is also sketchy, muddled - and at least to this reader - ultimately frustrating - raising more questions than it answers - particularly about its subject let alone the Middle East.

In his introduction the author explains he received no assistance from the CIA. Putting aside the debate whether this lack of support was right or wrong - I think it's safe to say such a decision by Langley is not surprising, if not predictable. Furthermore Ames' wife/widow - I assume during interviews with the author - makes it clear that her husband was a good company man - sharing only what was necessary with her about his work. (Furthermore the author knew Ames as an adolescent and just like his parents and neighbors assumed Ames was a State Department employee.) But even taking that into account these two information sources - or lack thereof - this reader had a very difficult time gaining any appreciation or understanding of Robert Ames the man and more specifically the "operative" - who by all accounts was extremely effective in gathering and cultivating trusted sources.

Two cases in point, PLO "intelligence officer" and Arafat favorite, Ali Hassan Salameh - a name I was familiar with - and Ames' go-between, Mustafa Zein - a name I wasn't. The chronicling of these two men the most informative and engaging part of the book, providing the reader with a behind the scenes look at the formation/evolution of the PLO, Arafat himself, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the terrorist off-shoot Islamic Amal/Hezbollah.

In the "lack of info department" - There are only a few paragraphs on Desert One, the failed US attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran, which the author tantalizingly hints Ames may have helped plan. And Ames' chumming up to Secretary of State George Schultz - a possible inter-department/bureaucratic faux pas - at least among his CIA peers

There is also a lot of repetition in the narrative from chapter to chapter - which may be cleared up in the final published edition - including the presence of author John LeCarre and his inspiration for/writing of his novel The Little Drummer Girl, the disappearance in Libya of Imam Musa Sadr and even the status/ages of the Ames children.

Bottom line is that I found The Good Spy a mixed bag - excellent in parts, but far too often sketchy or at least incomplete.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating biography worthy of a John LeCarre novel 4 April 2014
By asiana - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
The little tidbits of personal information about the "secret spy," Robert Ames, made this a hard to put down book. That, plus the well researched details of near east events during the past 50+ years made history come alive, including assassinations, hijackings, bombings, and the intricacies of both the CIA and the Foreign Service. A big plus for me were the descriptions of destinations I'll never get to see, such as Yemen, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. The author has a keen eye for both the countries in which Mr. Ames served and those individuals with whom he was in contact. It was one of the most enlightening books on the Middle East that I've ever read and I highly recommend it.
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