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

Kai Bird
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (161 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.

Editorial Reviews


New York Times Bestseller

“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

Full of great morsels and details… Bird has found in Ames a wonderful new subject…. The Good Spy succeeds on the basis of Bird’s considerable research skills, his interviews with intelligence officials, his access to Ames’s letters home and, above all, his ability to spot and put together an engrossing biography.
Washington Post

“Bird captures the acrid taste of regional politics and offers a perceptive portrayal of the internal workings and interplay of personalities within the CIA at the time…An enthralling read.”
Houston Chronicle

 “[Bird] spent years researching this terrific biography of one of America’s most important covert operatives. It was worth every minute.” –Seattle Times

This absorbing book suggests that even the best of intentions, and the best of spies, aren’t enough to bridge the chasms in the Middle East.”
—Los Angeles Times
“In his riveting, illuminating account of Ames' life and ultimate death in the 1983 embassy bombing in Beirut, Bird pulls back the thick black curtain on the world of clandestine intelligence affairs — a world that turns out to be more blazer-and-pen than cloak-and-dagger, though no less engrossing — to tell the story of one individual's good work in a not-so-good system. A
Entertainment Weekly

“One of the best nonfiction books ever written about the West’s involvement in the Arab world.”
—The Spectator

One of 2014's best books so far. “A lucid, thorough, fascinating biography.”

“More exciting than le Carré’s George Smiley or Fleming’s James Bond, Bird recreates the life of CIA superspy Robert Ames… Bird’s meticulous account of Ames’s career amid an ongoing Mideast climate of caution and suspicion is one of the best books on the American intelligence community.”
—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“A moving biography within a balanced presentation of the complex diplomacy over the Palestinian quest for statehood and Israeli need for security.”
—Library Journal (Starred Review)
 “A poignant tribute to a CIA Middle East operative who helped get the Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other—and died for it.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“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
“The Good Spy gives us the CIA up close and personal—the intricate dance of recruiting ‘assets,’ the bureaucratic maneuverings, the family compromises.  But because Ames was a Mideast specialist his biography also becomes a knowing history of that region's political failures and relentless descent into violence.  Well reported, even-handed, compelling reading -- one of the best books ever written about the CIA.”
—Joseph Kanon, New York Times bestselling author of Los Alamos and The Good German

"Beautifully written and researched, The Good Spy is the best book I've ever read on espionage. It perfectly captures the CIA at its best. What's more, it's a book you can't put down, right to its tragic end. I need to add this: while Bob Ames's career and mine crossed paths over the years, it's Kai Bird who has finally put the story together for me. Reading this, I wondered at times if Kai somehow pulled off a black bag operation to get into the Agency archives."
—Robert Baer, former CIA operative and New York Times bestselling author of See No Evil
“Kai Bird has unearthed an astonishing amount of detail about Robert Ames, the CIA, and U.S. spy operations in the Middle East. His book could not be more timely in showing us the perils and advantages of clandestine actions in the name of national security. The Good Spy gives new meaning to the adage that truth can be stranger than fiction.”
—Robert Dallek, author of the #1 New York Times bestseller An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963
"If John le Carré were a nonfiction specialist, he surely would feel the lure of writing the story that is at the heart of The Good Spy.  Kai Bird works the seam between history and espionage.  He has produced an arresting book—one that is knowing, and masterful in its rendition of a time when the United States cast a huge shadow across the Arab world.  Robert Ames, the spy in Kai Bird's title, is a figure of unusual poignancy because his guile and innocence run side by side.”
—Fouad Ajami, Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author of The Syrian Rebellion

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.

Product Details

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
61 of 67 people found the following review helpful
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.
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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good spy story for the spy-averse reader March 31, 2014
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.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars superb history fused with intrigue and irony March 30, 2014
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.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars DISCONNECTED May 9, 2014
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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars "Homeland" in real life
I am a big Kai Bird fan and he does not disappoint here. This is classic Bird - crisply written, well researched and believable. Read more
Published 8 hours ago by Gaucho36
5.0 out of 5 stars This true story of murdered CIA section chief in middle east is not...
Book is engaging and does present a more well balanced perspective on middle east than one would ever get from news. Read more
Published 1 day ago by Kathy B
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Great book!
Published 2 days ago by Fogy
3.0 out of 5 stars So so bio doesn't live up to hype.
Not so compelling read.
Published 4 days ago by Robert L. Crumley
4.0 out of 5 stars He obtained vital information and had excellent contacts. His leanings...
Robert Ames was apparently a superb intelligence agent and executive. He obtained vital information and had excellent contacts. Read more
Published 5 days ago by William Deaton
2.0 out of 5 stars Not for me
Personally I found "The good spy" boring and never bothered to finish it. I love spy stories in general, so a true spy story sounded exciting. Read more
Published 5 days ago by Listening
4.0 out of 5 stars He took great risks, thinking "outside the box"
Robert Ames was a true patriot. He took great risks, thinking "outside the box". But he was also knowledgeable about the Arab world. He was not just a naive do-gooder. Read more
Published 7 days ago by Ruth Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
If you read this paired with David Ignatius's Agent's of Innocence you'll see how truly remarkable this man was!
Published 7 days ago by smh57
3.0 out of 5 stars "The Good Arabist" would also be an appropriate title.
This is an important book for anyone who wants to become acquainted with the Arabist line. A good Arabist believes that virtually every problem in the Middle East is the result of... Read more
Published 8 days ago by Roadhouse
2.0 out of 5 stars I was very disappointed with this book
I was very disappointed with this book, which I had purchased because of the glowing reviews it had received.
Found it boring and poorly written and disorganized. Read more
Published 9 days ago by Sejanus
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More About the Author

Kai Bird is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and biographer. His next book is The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames. A biography of a CIA officer, The Good Spy will be released on May 20, 2014 by Crown/Random House. Kai's last book was a memoir about the Middle East entitled Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 (Scribner, April 27, 2010). It was a 2011 Finalist in the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. He is the co-author with Martin J. Sherwin of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (2005), which also won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and the Duff Cooper Prize for History in London. He wrote The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment (1992) and The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy & William Bundy, Brothers in Arms (1998). He is also co-editor with Lawrence Lifschultz of Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy (1998). He is the recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's writing fellowship, the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, the German Marshall Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation's Study Center, Bellagio, Italy and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is a member of the Society of American Historians and a contributing editor of The Nation. He lives in Lima, Peru with his wife and son.

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