Synopses & Reviews
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.
"More exciting than le Carré's George Smiley or Fleming's James Bond, Bird (Crossing Mandelbaum Gate) recreates the life of C.I.A. superspy Robert Ames, an operative with a skill for appreciating the turns and twists of Mideast politics. Ames, a detail-oriented, Philadelphia-bred scholar, was offered a job by the Agency as a junior officer in 1960, rising quickly through the ranks. Later, one colleague said Ames 'would have stood tall in his All American shoes as a Louis L'Amour hero.' Whatever the assignment Beirut, Aden, Asmara, Kuwait Ames cultivated key Arab sources, befriending such unlikely personalities as Mustafa Zein, a strategic advisor to the ruling sheik of Abu Dhabi, and Ali Hassan Salameh, a favorite of Yasir Arafat, through such flashpoints as the Jordanian civil war, the Munich massacre, and the Iran hostage crisis. Although Ames was an essential player in the 1977 Camp David accords, the C.I.A. Mideast expert with so much potential to unify the opposing factions died in a 1983 bomb explosion outside the U.S. embassy in Beirut, setting back the process of reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians. Bird's meticulous account of Ames's career amid an ongoing Mideast climate of caution and suspicion is one of the best books on American intelligence community." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Cool and authoritative...The book's understated pleasures come from reading a pro writing about a pro. Mr. Bird has a dry style; watching him compose a book is like watching a robin build a nest. Twig is entwined with twig until a sturdy edifice is constructed. No flourishes are required....Mr. Bird's style is ideal for his subject." Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"Kai Bird has produced a compelling and complex narrative that must be read on many levels — including as a detailed account of the immense influence that a truly good man can have on an agency as cynical as the CIA, and as a reminder of a myriad of losses. Robert Ames did not live long enough to get what he most desperately wanted — a real peace in the Middle East. And America's intelligence agencies no longer seem as welcoming to agents with the wisdom, vision and integrity that Ames exemplified."
Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Price of Power, The Dark Side of Camelot, and Chain of Command
"Kai Bird has delivered two miracles — the best day-by-day account of a secret intelligence career in the CIA, and the best book about the murderous intelligence war between Israel and her enemies with America smack in the middle. For years Robert Ames — The Good Spy — tried to nudge both sides toward peace until he picked the wrong day to visit the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and was killed by a car bomb. Bird has written a powerful and revealing story that leaves the reader with a troubling question — how did America get trapped in this war it can do nothing to end?"
Thomas Powers, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Intelligence Wars and The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA
About the Author
Kai Bird is the coauthor or author of four previous books: American Prometheus, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, The Chairman, and The Color of Truth. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Writing Fellowship.