The Good Spy: The Life And Death Of Robert Ames, by Kai Bird
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Broadway Books in exchange for an honest review.]
There are really multiple aims going on with this book, and some of them succeed better than others. For one, this book is a highly sympathetic biography of one of America’s most notable spies, a fellow named Robert Ames, who developed a key area of expertise in the Middle East as a pro-Arab CIA intelligence officer from someone who knew him as a child and obviously greatly admired him. An equally important, and vastly less successful aim, of the book is a complex desire to make a cultured PLO playboy into a sympathetic character, make the Palestinian cause sympathetic by seeking to downplay its massive and pervasive hatred of Israel and presenting them as innocent victims of Jewish aggression, and to make the CIA and its camp in favor of human intelligence sympathetic, none of which are ultimately successful to those who come to the book with sufficient existing outside contextual knowledge.
In terms of its structure, the book discusses the personal and professional path of the life of Robert Ames, from his childhood in a modest and conservative working class family to his education, a fateful decision as a draftee to learn Arabic, and his quick rise through the CIA, where he showed himself ambitious and sometimes quite fierce but also diligent and hardworking and a friend to those contacts he cultivated through his career as a clandestine operations officer in the Middle East. Although the CIA did not end up helping out with the report, and plenty of the people who gave intelligence to the author did so without using their real names, in order not to blow their cover, I suppose, the book reads like a nonfictional version of a novel by John Le Carre or Graham Greene, both of whose novels are referenced as being relevant to the life of Mr. Ames. The book details Ames’ attempts to encourage a pro-Palestinian view at the CIA and with the general diplomatic and government establishment of the United States, efforts that ultimately failed first because of the 1972 Munich Attack and then because of the assassination of “The Red Prince,” and finally the death of Ames himself in the 1983 Beirut Embassy bombing. The author then briefly ties up loose ends by looking at the aftermath of Ames’ death for his family and offers some deeply troubling looks at the fate of those considered most responsible for the bombing that killed him.
Although this book tries to make Ames into an innocent, what it seems to do most effectively in detailing as best as possible the operations of the CIA and other intelligence organizations, like that of Israel, which falls under unjust and extremely prejudicial criticism here, is demonstrate to the reader the immense corruption of the intelligence infrastructure of the United States from the pen of someone who seeks to defend and endorse it. Over and over again the author points to the corrupt nature of how a certain elitist mindset was cultivated in the CIA, and how ineffective espionage efforts were given several times the budget of our legitimate and open efforts at foreign diplomacy. Additionally, this book shows how intelligent and patriotic intelligence officers go native based on their own biases, and then try to drive policy based on those biases, and then how authors fall into the same traps trying to write about such intelligence officers in a sympathetic way. Perhaps most simply, the book shows the United States as being willing to deal with the worst sorts of evil men (and women) around the world so as to have influence and access to knowledge of certain international actors, as well as the fact that such people do not consider it necessary to be open and transparent about their activities or feel the need to serve the interests of the American population in encouraging a pro-intelligence attitude by which intelligence gathering skills are a normal part of being an educated and alert and perceptive person, as opposed to being encouraged only by a narrow and opaque elite. This book, in shedding some light to our nation’s troubled intelligence world, should help prompt a serious conversation about how we can best serve our nation’s interest by honesty and openness rather than a dependence on either sordid spycraft or a reliance on technological gadgets to spy on and take out our enemies from afar.