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The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames von [Bird, Kai]
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New York Times Bestseller

A Washington Post Notable Book

A Christian Science Monitor Top Ten Book, 2014

New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice

Entertainment Weekly's Best Spy Book of 2014

A Daily Beast Best Biography of 2014

An Apple Top 10 Biography of 2014

“A rich nuanced portrait of a man who, in the CIA's term, had a high tolerance for ambiguity...One of the best accounts we have of how espionage really works.”
—Mark Mazzetti, The New York Times Book Review

“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

“A well-researched, engagingly presented biography...The Good Spy is a fascinating book that sheds much-needed light on one of the murkier corners of CIA—and Middle Eastern—history.”
—Max Boot, Wall Street Journal

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

“Engrossing…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

Riveting…[Bird] relates fascinating details (drawn from interviews with some 30 retired CIA and Mossad officers) about the culture and practices of the agency, including the life-and-death implications of designating an individual as either a ‘source,’ a ‘recruit’ or an ‘asset.’”
San Francisco Gate

“With its pacy narrative, exotic locales and colourful cast of CIA and Mossad agents, Palestinian and Iranian revolutionaries, Lebanese operators and even a winner of the Miss Universe contest, the book has all the ingredients of a first-class thriller. Kai Bird writes well enough to be a novelist, too, but his sentences have the additional virtue of being true.”
Times Literary Supplement

“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 (UK)

“All of this is engrossing for those fascinated by the machinations of the people and politics of the Middle East…But this book should appeal to a wider audience. It underlines the need for intelligence-gathering by humans as well as by machines, and illustrates the gap between spying and policy.”
The Economist

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

“It is a reflection of the drama of this patch of history as well as Bird’s skill in rendering it that the book is as compelling a read as most spy novels.”
National Interest

Kai Bird has written a riveting biography… This intriguing book shares many exciting exploits of Ames’ life as a spy, but most captivating was his poignant relationship with Ali Hassan Salameh.”
–Jewish Journal (Massachusetts)

“Painstakingly researched...In addition to being an admiring biography of a uniquely gifted CIA operative, The Good Spy reminds us of those long-ago days when some sort of resolution was considered even a remote possibility.”
Highbrow Magazine

“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

From the Hardcover edition.


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.


  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • Dateigröße: 7960 KB
  • Seitenzahl der Print-Ausgabe: 448 Seiten
  • Verlag: Crown (20. Mai 2014)
  • Verkauf durch: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Sprache: Englisch
  • ASIN: B00GVZN320
  • Text-to-Speech (Vorlesemodus): Aktiviert
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  • Verbesserter Schriftsatz: Aktiviert
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Die hilfreichsten Kundenrezensionen auf (beta) 4.3 von 5 Sternen 286 Rezensionen
93 von 102 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen History's bitterest vintage will always be What-Might-Have-Been 10. April 2014
Von Nathan Webster - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Vine Kundenrezension eines kostenfreien Produkts ( Was ist das? )
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.

By invading Lebanon to evict the PLO (after Ames efforts were flatlined by the asassination of his main PLO contact, Hassan Salameh), Israel created a power vacuum that led to the massacre of some 2,500 civilians in a Palestinian refugee camp. To put that in perspective, it's the same number of Palestinians, Shi'a Muslims, etc. as the number of US civilians who died on 9/11. What do you think the response to that would be? We have the answer - the destruction of the US embassy in Beirut that killed Ames and many others, and later the 241 Marines who died in the Marine barracks bombing.

Of course, that was 1982-83 - plenty of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel had occured for decades before that. Ames' contact, Salameh, was suspected of involvement in the 1972 Munich Olympics attack - so of course Israel would target him.

It's the perfect definition of a circle of violence, and we're still living in it today.

I think author Kai Bird does an amazing job of taking the reader through this convoluted and epically frustrating history. I think he leans a bit too heavily toward "what might have been" arguments that I'm not sure history supports. In the 1980s, neither Israel or the PLO were ready to engage each other - add to that Iranian hatred of the US that dated back to our support of the despotic Shah, and then add Syrian nervousness at a Christian, possibly Israel-aligned government on their border, and I don't think peace was coming - whether Ames had lived or not.

Another connection to the present day - while there's all sort of raving about "Benghazi!" a read of this book reveals the kidnapping and killing of several US diplomats. It happens. But, the US government - for much of it, the Ronald Reagan-led government - did little or nothing in response. Mainly because they didn't know who to target. While there was SOME response to the bombing of the Marine barracks, it was limited to salvos from the USS New Jersey - hardly an invasion of two countries like post-9/11. In fact, one response was a screwed-up car bomb that killed 80 civilians - and those casualties led to the dismantling of the entire 'revenge' effort; compare that to how we attack with drones today, where common civilian casualties are barely discussed. Do we think there will never be a cost? That the 'other side' is simply going to forget?

The 70s-80s governments had plenty of flaws, but Nixon, Carter and Reagan recognized that the US had global responsibilities and had to keep things in perspective - the nation could not go off half-cocked on crazed foreign misadventures. We had to take our lumps and navigate the rough water as best we could. Unfortunately, that lesson in perspective and unintended consequences was ignored by subsequent administrations; and look what happened.

Of course, had we responded more forcefully in 1983, maybe Bin Laden never rises above a local despot in an Afghan mountain town. Or maybe we bomb Soviet ally Syria and it escalates into tactical nukes over Europe. You never know.

This is a great book, not just for the upclose look at an unheralded US agent, but for a history to which we would do well to pay better attention.
31 von 35 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen superb history fused with intrigue and irony 30. März 2014
Von John E. Drury - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Vine Kundenrezension eines kostenfreien Produkts ( Was ist das? )
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.
39 von 45 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen A good spy story for the spy-averse reader 31. März 2014
Von N. B. Kennedy - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe Vine Kundenrezension eines kostenfreien Produkts ( Was ist das? )
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.
12 von 12 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
3.0 von 5 Sternen Worthwhile, if you are interested in U.S. - Middle East politics, but repetition is tedious. 27. Juli 2014
Von Elizabeth III - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Kindle Edition
This is a well researched book about an era of our foreign policy that is not well known today. Robert Ames, the author makes clear, repeatedly, was a special person. As the book progresses, the author takes more time to present all sides of Robert's personality and motivations, including his appreciation of Arabic cultures and his directly disobeying CIA directives not to associate with known terrorists or the PLO. The author also notes the irony that in spite of Robert's attempts to understand and convey this understanding to U.S. policymakers, he ended up a victim of the jihadist movements he attempted to develop relations with. What made this book challenging, and why the three stars, is that it began to seem, through frequent repetition, that the author was having trouble telling the story without including quotes from all of his sources who said the same things about Robert. At several points, I thought I had lost my place and was rereading the same information. In a nutshell, the story is worth telling, but be prepared to work at it.
8 von 9 Kunden fanden die folgende Rezension hilfreich
5.0 von 5 Sternen The Good Spy is essential reading for anyone interested in relationships with the Middle East. 21. Mai 2014
Von She Treads Softly - Veröffentlicht auf
Format: Kindle Edition
The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird is a very highly recommended biography of the life of Robert Ames.

First I have to admit that I've been looking forward to reading The Good Spy for months. After reading Bird's biography of Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus,
[...] I knew this would be another biography that I simply couldn't pass on reading - and was I ever right. For those who love to delve deeper into history, especially of the turmoil in Middle East, this is a biography that simple should be read.

Robert Ames was a CIA operative and America's most capable and significant intelligence officer in the Middle East. Many of you will remember when a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut on April 18, 1983. Sixty three people were killed, including Robert Ames. This attack marked a critical moment in history when the Hezbollah became the prevailing political power in the Middle East while America lost one of our chief intelligence officers.

Robert Ames was born on March 6, 1934, in a working class neighborhood of Philadelphia. He went to La Salle University on a basketball scholarship. After this he was in the Army and happened to be assigned to Kagnew Station, which was operated by the NSA. This was when Bob Ames first discovered the world of intelligence. In 1960 he started working for the CIA. Ames became an expert on the Arabic world, including languages, history, and politics, and was naturally involved with trying to understand the conflicts in the area, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict. He was able to form beneficial friendships and bonds with people.
"He was never naïve about the Middle East, a cockpit of power politics. He understood the personalities and motivations of the revolutionary left in the Arab world as much as he appreciated the rituals of the Sheiks.” Ames had understood that a good CIA officer must have a curiosity about the foreign other—and a certain degree of empathy for their struggles." (Location 184)

Bird writes: "Robert Clayton Ames was a very good spy. Everyone at the Central Intelligence Agency who knew him thought he was good at his work precisely because he was so very disarming and innocent. He was a classic American—idealistic and good-hearted and open as a Jimmy Stewart character. There was nothing phony about him, nothing cosmopolitan or pretentious. To the contrary, as another CIA officer later observed, he exuded a “rock-bottom American-ness that was neither Ugly nor Quiet.” Foreigners invariably liked him."(Location 212)

On a personal level, Ames was a devoted husband and father. He had converted to Catholicism and took his faith seriously. He lived a moral life. He was an intellectual who enjoyed reading. "Another CIA case officer, Sam Wyman, once asked Ames how he found the time to read books. 'Oh, I always make time to read—at least an hour a day,' Bob replied."(Location 1305) He was hardworking, curious, and idealistic. He was the perfect combination of personality traits to be a good spy.

"There was nothing complicated about the way Bob Ames learned to become a good spy. 'There was no deep trick to it,' Thomas Powers wrote of the art of intelligence. 'You had to want to know, you had to do a lot of homework, and you had to listen.' Ames was a listener. This is not to say that he listened without judgment. He listened as an American, and he was always skeptical. But he listened with a plain sense of human empathy. He listened to people who by any broad definition were easily labeled by policy makers back in Washington as terrorists." (Location 6077)

Beyond The Good Spy being a biography of Robert Ames, it is more importantly a modern history of the diplomacy and intelligence gathering in the Middle East in the 1970's to the mid-1980's. The final chapter is chilling and should evoke a sense of outrage in most readers.

It is, perhaps, such a open, honest account of the Middle East at this time because Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird wrote The Good Spy "without the cooperation of anyone inside the CIA. Fortunately, I found more than thirty retired officers, both clandestine officers from the Directorate of Operations and analytical officers from the Directorate of Intelligence, who generously shared their memories of Bob Ames. Some of these individuals were willing to speak for the record, but many spoke not for attribution." (Location 84) He also knew Bob Ames when he was an adolescent. "He and his wife Yvonne were our next-door neighbors from 1962 to 1965 in the small U.S. consulate compound in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia."

Bird has a very helpful section of the cast of characters at the beginning of The Good Spy. As is my wont, I am always thrilled when a nonfiction book includes more. He also includes a prologue, epilogue, acknowledgments, notes, and bibliography.

The Good Spy is essential reading for anyone interested in relationships with the Middle East.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Crown Publishing for review purposes.
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