By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — What makes a good spy? It’s not the flashy qualities you see in the movies, or the “Murder Inc.” tactics the CIA has sometimes been ordered to use against terrorists during the past decade. It’s something more delicate and human, as explained in a remarkable new biography of one of the CIA’s bravest and best officers ever in the Middle East.
The book, titled appropriately enough “The Good Spy,” is by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Kai Bird. It tells the story of a master case officer named Robert Ames, who developed a deep relationship with the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chief of intelligence, Ali Hassan Salameh, known as “Abu Hassan.” Salameh had a CIA cryptonym, “MJTRUST/2” as a clandestine source, but he was never a controlled agent — and therein lies the heart of this tale.
“The Good Spy” has all the moral ambiguities a thriller reader could want. Salameh was one of the most trusted advisers to PLO chief Yasser Arafat and a member of the Black September terrorist network. The Israelis tried repeatedly to assassinate him before succeeding in 1979. Yet Salameh was also among the CIA’s most valuable contacts in the region and was credited for saving the lives of many Americans. Ames died tragically in 1983 when a car bomb destroyed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
Before I go any further, I should declare a personal interest: I told the story of Salameh’s relationship with the CIA, first in a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal in 1983 and then in a thinly veiled novel called “Agents of Innocence,” published in 1987, both of which vexed the agency. I strongly encouraged Bird to write his nonfiction account, believing this case should be known by a wider public, but I am frankly amazed at how much new information he was able to unearth.
Readers who want the full story should savor Bird’s meticulous account. Here I want to distill some lessons that apply to America’s future counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering operations in the Middle East. This is a process the U.S. has bungled over the past decade, but the Bob Ames story explains how to do it right.
For Ames, espionage was a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which virtue was rewarded. He spoke excellent Arabic and had a deep affinity for the region’s culture. His letters home were brimming with a gee-whiz enthusiasm. Writing to his wife Yvonne from Oman in 1967, he enthused: “The people are real friendly and full of the real Arab hospitality.” You can’t fake that kind of empathy, and I suspect it saved Ames’ life more than once.
Ames’ spying also benefited from the fact he was so very American. The son of a Pennsylvania steelworker, he embodied the openness and decency that many foreigners like best about the U.S. Where the members of the CIA’s founding generation were aristocratic Anglophiles, with an arrogance that often infected their operations, Ames conveyed the spirit of bedrock America. His closest Arab contact, a remarkable Lebanese named Mustafa Zein (who, as Bird documents, was never a paid CIA agent, despite all the help he provided), was drawn to these same heartland American values as an exchange student in Naperville, Illinois.
Ames’ success came partly because he operated over the line, sharing far more with Zein and Salameh than the CIA rule book would advise. This sometimes put him crossways with CIA headquarters, which leaned toward Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy and away from the stateless Palestinians. Most important, Ames rejected the CIA tradecraft that said Salameh couldn’t be trusted unless he was a controlled agent. The old boys tried that in 1970, offering Salameh a bribe of $300,000 a month, but the Palestinian spurned the money.
Ames spoke to his Arab contacts with astonishing directness. He wrote to Zein after the botched pitch in 1970, in one of many letters that would have given heartburn to his superiors: “I know (Salameh has) suffered some setbacks because of his contact with me. He was also ahead of his time. We really started something good and I believe history will prove that if people had been wiser and more honest, much misery could have been avoided.”
The United States has made many mistakes in the Middle East since 2001, trying to bribe, intimidate or kill our adversaries, or alternatively sweet-talk them about democracy. Ames’ story is a reminder that we don’t have to get it so wrong, and that America is most successful in the spy game and everything else when it is faithful to its values.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.