On September 13, 1993, the day Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn, several dozen CIA officers quietly gathered at the grave of Robert Ames in Arlington National Cemetery. While most of the world focused on the hope of Middle East peace, those at Ames’ grave paid tribute to an operative who may have made that peace possible, even though few knew what he had accomplished—not the presidents he served, not members of Congress, not even his own family.

The Good Spy is Kai Bird’s engrossing biography of Ames, who served his country for decades in the Middle East. Bird, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (American Prometheus), received no official help from the CIA, but found that dozens of retired operatives, Ames’ wife Yvonne and his children, and Ames’ longtime contact Mustafa Zein were more than willing to tell his story. A devoted family man, Ames was also gifted with sharp intelligence, a love of Arabic language and culture, and the requisite patience and sensitivity that made him a very effective clandestine officer.

This book is not only a fascinating character study of the man himself, but also a window into the skills Ames used to recruit agents and cultivate relationships with key political and military players. It describes in detail the CIA’s relationship with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, including the lengths the agency went to in an effort to protect key leaders of the organization and the ties Ames maintained with PLO security chief Ali Hassan Salameh, a crucial back-channel to Arafat, the PLO’s “chairman.”

Bird also details Ames’ death in the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing, an attack that killed 63 people, including 17 Americans. The Good Spy demonstrates anew all that was lost on that tragic day, and the consequences for those seeking peace in a war-torn region.


This article was originally published in the June 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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