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The Winding Stories Of A Quintessential American Spy


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. On April 18th, 1983, President Ronald Reagan addressed the nation about news that had broken earlier that morning in Lebanon.


PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: As you know, our embassy in Beirut was the target this morning of a vicious terrorist bombing. This cowardly act has claimed a number of killed and wounded. It appears that there are some American casualties but we don't know yet the exact number or the extent of injury.

SIEGEL: As the writer Kai Bird sums it up in his new book, the truck bombing killed 63 people and injured some 120. Among the Americans killed was Robert Ames, the subject of Kai Bird's book, "The Good Spy." Ames was the CIA's top Arabist(ph), one who defied many stereotypes about that trade. He was a field agent turned analyst who had opened a back channel to the intelligence chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization at a time when both the organization and his contact were officially regarded as terrorists. Kai Bird joins us. Welcome.

KAI BIRD: Thank you, Robert. It's great to be here.

SIEGEL: And let's start with Ames. What's so important about Ames' work for the CIA that you were drawn to write a book about him?

BIRD: Well, first of all, I was drawn to him because I knew him. When I was 12 and 13 years old, he was our next door neighbor in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where my father was a Foreign Service officer stationed there. Of course, I didn't know he was a CIA officer at the time. My father did, of course, but I just had these vivid memories of this tall, handsome, blue-eyed fellow who often played basketball with the Marines guarding the consulate compound at the time. And then later on, I heard about his horrible death in Beirut in this truck bombing. But he also turned out to have been extremely important in creating this back-channel, highly clandestine relationship with Ali Hassan Salameh, the intelligence chief for Yasser Arafat, at a time when no American diplomats could talk to the Palestinians.

SIEGEL: Tell us more about who Ali Hassan Salameh was.

BIRD: Well, he was known sort of casually as the Red Prince. He was rather dashing, wore black leather jackets, gold chains, drove fast cars, loved good wine and beautiful women, very much an extrovert and a brilliant tactician. And Ames initially tried to recruit him but quickly realized that he was the kind of source who was unrecruitable but might be extremely valuable to get to know. And he turned the relationship into a genuine friendship.

SIEGEL: Many people thought that Ali Hassan Salameh was number two to Yasser Arafat and the PLO back in those days. Many people also said he had a lot of blood on his hands.

BIRD: Both true. This is a complicated relationship but this is what good spies do. They get close to bad guys to understand them, sometimes to recruit them for information, and sometimes, in the case of Ames, it was to steer them in a different direction. And that was Ames' - as the relationship evolved, he encouraged Ali Hassan Salameh to encourage Arafat to think more about laying down the guns and achieving their Palestinian aspirations through political negotiations and heading towards a two-state solution.

SIEGEL: There is a real-life intelligence drama at the core of your book, which has also been treated by fiction writers - among them, David Ignatius in one of his books. It involves Ali Hassan Salameh, the CIA and the Mossad, the Israeli spy service. A Mossad guy goes to a CIA man and says Ali Hassan Salameh, is he your man? Explain what's going on at that moment.

BIRD: Well, the Mossad had the belief and some evidence that Ali Hassan was close to Black September and was involved in the Munich tragedy where 11 Israeli athletes were killed brutally in Munich in 1972.

SIEGEL: At the Olympics.

BIRD: And so, ever since that happened, they put him on a hit list and they attempted to assassinate him on at least three occasions and failed. And in 1978, they reopened the case and they went to the CIA and asked is he your man? Well, this presented the agency with a dilemma. Do they say, yes, he's our man, or do they say no? And in the end, they decided that the best answer was no answer.

SIEGEL: It was a green light.

BIRD: It was a green light. And by saying neither no nor yes, they hoped to sort of fudge it. But Ames was quite upset at the time with this response and he warned Ali Hassan to beef up his security. But in January of 1979, indeed 15 Mossad agents snuck into Beirut and launched an operation and a car bomb killed him in January of '79.

SIEGEL: Ames, meanwhile, sympathetic to the Palestinians as he was, had very good relations with the Mossad it seems, too.

BIRD: Yes. He traveled to Tel Aviv once a year, sometimes twice a year, had meetings with his counterparts, and he understood. He was a good spy actually because he could empathize with people. You know, he was a good spy because he was no James Bond. He had to carry a gun at times but he hated doing so. And he was the kind of CIA officer who made friendships with people around him, not enemies.

SIEGEL: Ultimately, Ames died in a truck bombing of the U.S. embassy and you addressed the question: who did it? So, who did it?

BIRD: Well, it is very clear that it was an operation by Iranian intelligence. And the extraordinary thing that I have discovered and pieced together at the end of my book is I actually name some of the intelligence officers from Iran who put together this truck bomb operation. And one of the chief masterminds was a man named Ali-Reza Asgari, and he defected to America in 2007 and was brought here apparently by the CIA and given asylum, even though he was directly responsible for the deaths of eight CIA officers in Beirut and many, many other Americans in Beirut, including over 240 U.S. Marines in the October '83 truck bombing attack.

SIEGEL: On the one hand, you read this at the end of your book and your blood boils a bit that this is defiling the memory of Ames and all the other Americans who were killed by Asgari. On the other hand, your description of Ames is that he was capable of seeing bloodshed, being quite aware of killing and regarding it as something that happened in the field that he chose to work.

BIRD: Yes. You know, and, again, this is another reason why he was a good spy. He understood that the world was complicated and, you know, we've read a lot recently about how supposedly the NSA and wiretap and intercept intelligence is so important to our national security. But I would argue that when you read "The Good Spy" you understand that human intelligence is far more important. The ability to form relationships with people who have good information will ultimately keep us safer in this world.

SIEGEL: Well, Kai Bird, thank you for talking with us about the book.

BIRD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Kai Bird's book about the late Central Intelligence officer Robert Ames is called "The Good Spy." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.