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Kai Bird is the Executive Director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography and an award-winning historian and journalist. His work includes critical writings on the Vietnam War, Hiroshima, nuclear weapons, the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the CIA.

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'The Good Spy' by Kai Bird makes the case for a more humane form of espionage
Kai Bird's biography of Robert Ames – a CIA operative whom Bird praises as an almost perfect spy – offers valuable insight on the Middle East.

By Nick Romeo
May 20, 2014

Before his 1981 inauguration, president-elect Ronald Reagan was briefed by the CIA on the intricacies of Palestinian politics. He read a nuanced memorandum outlining the wide spectrum of positions within the Palestinian movement for self-determination. Some groups favored a two-state solution, while others were ready to assassinate any Palestinian willing to compromise with the Israelis. Reagan read carefully for about 10 minutes before looking up and asking a question. "But they are all terrorists, aren't they?"

It would be hard to accuse Reagan of an overly scholarly approach to the Middle East. Perhaps a thorough knowledge of the region was not essential if the president could rely on experts. It's unsettling, however, to learn that some of these ostensible experts seemed to share Reagan's aversion to learning about the subtleties of one of the world's most complex and volatile areas.

In the spring of 1979, for instance, just after the Iranian revolution, none of the CIA officers in Tehran spoke Farsi. The chief of the CIA's Near East and South Asia division in the mid-1970s once said that learning a local language was a waste of time. Another high-ranking intelligence officer later wrote of the Middle East that "in a generic sense, it's all the same."
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A singular exception to this culture of ignorance was a man named Robert Ames, the subject of Kai Bird's new biography, The Good Spy: the Life and Death of Robert Ames. According to a colleague, Ames was perceived within the CIA's directorate of operations as "being too smart, too much of an intellectual." He was later denied a major promotion because he was "too intellectual" for the job. But in Bird's view, Ames was close to the perfect spy: someone who combined a deep knowledge of the Middle East with a formidable talent for practical operations.

Ames joined the CIA in 1960, and one of his early postings was to Yemen, where he was the only staffer with sufficient Arabic to follow political speeches. He also had a gift for understanding local points of view. He empathized with Yemeni resentment of British colonial occupation. "The soldiers are arrogant and forever harassing the Arabs," he wrote. "No wonder they're hated."

While many spies recruited sources with abrupt offers of lavish compensation, Ames worked slowly, cultivating genuine friendships and engaging in long political and philosophical discussions. His understanding of local cultures and his interest in different perspectives allowed him to acquire more vital intelligence information than cash handouts could.
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The most important result of Ames’s approach was probably his relationship with Ali Hassan Salameh, an influential leader in Yasir Arafat's Fatah, a secular Palestinian political party and militia. Salameh also oversaw Force 17, the intelligence arm of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

In the early 1970s, Israeli Mossad operatives were targeting various Palestinian leaders for assassination. Some Palestinians, meanwhile, were launching a series of attacks on Israelis. Often these were designed more to draw international attention to the Palestinian's plight than to inflict serious damage. A depressing pattern began to recur: a Palestinian strike would trigger a disproportionate retaliation by the Israelis, which in turn would radicalize and displace more young Palestinians.

America's position in the region was delicate. Officially, the White House did not want to appear to negotiate with "terrorist" organizations, but alienating the PLO would present a considerable threat to American security at home and abroad. While some in the CIA made clumsy attempts to recruit Salameh as a paid source, Ames listened carefully to Salameh's ideas and sometimes shared his own. Rather than treating him strictly as a source of intelligence to be bought, Ames pursued a kind of clandestine diplomacy. By 1973, Bird writes, "Ames's back channel to Salameh had created a virtual nonaggression pact between the US government and Arafat's guerrillas." The next year, Arafat would address the UN general assembly in New York.

In 1978, Mossad operatives asked the CIA if Salameh was a paid source. The subtext of the question was clear: is he a legitimate target for Israeli assassins, or does he supply the US government with valuable intelligence? Salameh was not a paid agent, yet he was an essential conduit for Ames and the Americans. He even arranged for the PLO to provide security for American diplomats and the US embassy in Beirut.

If the CIA claimed Salameh as a paid source to protect him from Mossad, the PLO would regard him as a traitor. But if the CIA didn't claim him, Mossad would proceed with the assassination. Ames wanted the CIA to protect Salameh from Mossad without compromising Salameh’s position within the PLO. But his superiors did not follow his advice, and Salameh was killed in a car bombing in Beirut in 1979. Eight civilians died in the explosion.
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After Salameh's death, Ames still had other valuable Palestinian contacts. He used his influence to help avert the assassination of Israel's prime minister Menachem Begin in New York City in 1981. But Ames could not control the actions of every Palestinian. When the Israeli ambassador in London was shot in 1982, Prime Minister Begin ignored the fact that the assassin was employed by a group the PLO had condemned. He wanted a pretext to invade Lebanon and attack the PLO. "They're all PLO," he declared in a generalization worthy of Reagan.

A few days after the shooting in London, the Israelis initiated a massive invasion of Lebanon with tacit American support. Thousands of Lebanese with no connection to the PLO were killed, and many others were radicalized. Ames's advice not to sanction the invasion was ignored, but he was able to help facilitate peace negotiations with Arafat.

Bird argues that when Ames was killed in the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, the prospects for peace in the Middle East diminished dramatically. "The Good Spy" is a meticulous and moving biography, and Bird makes a persuasive case that Ames might have been able to help establish peace in the region.

Ames represents a type: the knowledgeable and humane spy who promotes American interests through conversation rather than coercion. His story is a parable for the advantages of a certain approach to intelligence work. Instead of placing confidence only in high-tech surveillance and paid sources, Ames realized what many in the CIA did not: the humanity of those whose organizations he was assigned to infiltrate.

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When asked what people should read to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, CIA veteran George Cave gives a simple answer: the Old Testament. Kai Bird's biography of Robert Ames deserves to join the list of essential reading.

A Life in the Shadows in the Cold War Mideast

By Dwight Garner

May 14, 2014

The first thing to understand about “The Good Spy,” Kai Bird’s cool and authoritative new biography, is that while it’s about a C.I.A. operative named Ames, it is not about Aldrich Ames, the United States counterintelligence officer and analyst who in 1994 was convicted of spying for the Russians.

“The Good Spy” introduces us instead to Robert Ames, son of a Philadelphia-area steelworker, who rose to become America’s most influential intelligence officer in the Middle East. Ames made close connections with important Arab intelligence figures and established an improbable early back channel to Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization.

Had he lived longer, Mr. Bird suspects, Ames might well have coaxed out better relations between Arabs and the West. He died on April 18, 1983, when a bomb exploded outside the American Embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. He was 49 and left behind a wife and six children. Only upon his death did most of them learn that their father had been a spy.

The second thing to understand about “The Good Spy” is that 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, and none are supplied.

Mr. Bird’s several books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” (2005), written with Martin J. Sherwin. Most recently he is the author of a memoir, “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and the Israelis, 1956-1978” (2010).

Mr. Bird’s style is ideal for his subject. Ames despised pretense and flash. Not a Lawrence of Arabia manqué, he was solid and reliable, perhaps even a bit dull. He was frugal and rarely drank. His idea of a good time was root beer and a bowl of pretzels, ideally consumed while listening to a Beach Boys or Glen Campbell record.

People warmed to him because he took an interest in them. Ames liked to wear Western boots, but he was more John le Carré than Louis L’Amour. A colleague described him as being “anonymous, perceptive, knowledgeable, highly motivated, critical, discreet — with a priest’s and cop’s understanding of the complexity of human nature in action.”

Mr. Bird tells several stories at once in “The Good Spy.” At the center is Ames’s narrative. But the author also looks consistently backward, to the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as forward to Sept. 11 and the current snarled realities of the Middle East. There is a great deal of incisive writing about the nature of spy craft.
Kai BirdCredit...Stephen Frietch

Ames graduated from La Salle University in Philadelphia and in 1956 entered the Army, where he was chosen for signal intelligence duty and assigned to a listening post in Ethiopia. He became interested in the Middle East while on brief visits to Cairo and Jerusalem and began to learn Arabic. He joined the C.I.A. in 1960, at the height of the Cold War, when most of his colleagues were immersed in Soviet affairs. He was posted in South Yemen, in Beirut, in Tehran, in Kuwait. He stood out. He was tall. He spoke the local language in an era when few American Middle Eastern hands did. “Don’t crack jokes in Arabic,” an Israeli Mossad officer was told, “because he knows Arabic.”
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The core of “The Good Spy” is an account of Ames’s relationship with Ali Hassan Salameh, a wealthy playboy — he resembled the comeback-period Elvis — who was Arafat’s intelligence chief and heir apparent. Ames arranged a clandestine meeting with Salameh in 1970 and told him, in the author’s paraphrase: “You Arabs claim your views are not heard in Washington. Here is your chance. The president of the United States is listening.”

He was stretching the truth, to some degree. But the delicateness of this relationship is hard to exaggerate. The P.L.O. was viewed as a terrorist organization, and official political contacts with its members were prohibited. Later in the decade, Andrew Young, ambassador to the United Nations under Jimmy Carter, would resign after it was discovered he’d met in New York with the chief of the P.L.O. mission.

Mr. Bird is excellent on the odd couple that Ames and Salameh made. Ames was criticized by some in the C.I.A. for not officially recruiting Salameh as a spy. But Ames felt he was more useful merely as a source.

Salameh had links to the organization behind the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and in 1979 he was assassinated by the Mossad. An American clandestine officer says here about relationships like Ames and Salameh’s: “You sup with the devil, but you use a long spoon.” Mr. Bird, though, shows Salameh to be a complicated and often sympathetic figure, one impossible to reduce to the term terrorist.

Ames ultimately moved with his family back to Virginia and became a high-level Middle East analyst for the C.I.A. He was consumed by the hostage crisis in Iran, and was involved in the development of the botched Desert One rescue mission that helped sink President Carter’s hopes for a second term.

During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the C.I.A. director William Casey relied on Ames for “all things Middle Eastern,” Mr. Bird writes. Ames regularly briefed Reagan; he was, Mr. Bird says, the C.I.A.’s “Mr. Middle East.”

“The Good Spy” provides a fresh and grainy view of the rise of organizations like Hezbollah, and of figures like Osama bin Laden. It allows us to meet in Ames a quiet but strong personality, a man whose fundamental decency allowed him to see both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict clearly.

Ames could have sold out and made millions by working for an American oil company. He had offers. His moral compass was too strong. His life and work deserve to be better known.
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meadcl | 29 outras críticas | May 10, 2024 |
Who looks for some scientific popularisation will be disappointed. There is virtually no physics here, except for a historical take of what brought Oppenheimer where he was - at the head of the atomic bomb project - in the early Fourties. The great achievement of this biography lies rather in the exploration of the implications of Oppenheimer's triumphs and defeats for society at large.

'One scientist had been excommunicated, but all scientists were now on notice that there could be serious consequences for those who challenged State policies' (Chapter 37)

Indeed, a lot of pages and effort are spent in the effort to document Bird's stance on what Oppenheimer's farce Security Clearance confirmation hearing meant for the role of the scientist in Twentieth Century's American society: are people of knowledge supposed to limit their contribution to technical support of the current State policy, or do they have the right - and responsibility - to help determine what uses of their work are legitimate or not? Also, should a Nation only trust politically orthodox experts, or should they welcome contributions from a wide range of points of view, and respect the right of their citizens to hold - or have held in the past - extreme and discordant views and still take part to the active political and intellectual life of their Country? Finally, is strict security or a politic of "candour" with the public and with foreign powers more effective in avoiding war and destruction? Bird concludes that, whatever the answers to these questions, Oppenheimer's ordeal was the final indictment of Roosevelt's liberal America by McCarthist politics of extreme conservatism, and that it brought with it the fall of the 'messianic scientist' from the pedestal where WWII's had put them, largely through Oppenheimer's team achievements at Los Alamos. I am not sure whether Los Alamos was an achievement at all, or whether it was Oppenheimer who quasi-singlehandedly brought all this to life, but the case is made convinvingly. I will need to read more on the subject, and to hear different opinions.
Interestingly enough, the great shift in the image of the Scientist in 1950s' America, largely due to the publication of the conclusions of Oppenheimer's confirmation board (at least this is what the book states), resonates with good ol' Geddafi's Green Book, where he argues that, as members of a profession don't meddle into the way in which other professions go about their business, so journalists and scientists should not be allowed to meddle into the way politicians and the Government go about THEIR business.
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The same approach is to be found in the treatment of the Los Alamos project: the focus is on the political power balance, and on the accurately documented shift between the real reasons for the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, and the propaganda. Bird chillingly reminds us of how Japan was actively looking for surrender in the weeks that preceded Hirosima's and Nagasaki's bombings, and of how the new U.S.A. administration was more interested in flexing with the Russians - who were still America's allies - than in pondering the legitimacy of using on Japanese civilians a bomb that had been hurriedly built to stop the Nazis from using it first. The confusion and disarray in which this shift - from stopping the Nazis, to bombing random civilians in a defeated country - threw Los Alamos' scientific community is a sight to behold; not to mention Oppenheimer's ambiguities, contradictions and weaknesses. It is a historical fact that he looked at the bombings with malcelated pride and nostalgia for all the rest of his life, while trying to come to terms with his responsibilities as Father of the Bomb; and we are left wondering how much ambition and vanity, rather than a sense of responsibility and guilt, were involved in shaping Oppenheimer's positions and campaigns for his continued involvement in deciding atomic policy after the war.
Quite transparently, the whole narration of Oppenheimer's life builds up from his very infancy towards the climax of the confirmation hearing, an ominous shadow hanging over a luminous life path. In doing so, Bird manages to highlight at the same time Oppenheimer's personal fragility and strength in both his public and private lives; the way he managed to adapt many of his deep character shortcomings to circumstances, while never really freeing himself of them, or of his deep insecurities and vanity; and his brilliance with its vast reach and similarly vast limits. He paints the portrait of a person who was nearly superhuman and yet endearing, relatable, vaguely deranged and infuriating at the same time - as we all are, when looked at by extremely close.
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1 vote
Elanna76 | 46 outras críticas | May 2, 2024 |
A behemoth of a biography -- and the backstory of how it was written is almost as compelling of the story itself. One of the few instances where the seeing the film actually helps visualize the action in the book, but there's so so so much more to the tale. A very satisfying read.
mblxv | 46 outras críticas | Mar 26, 2024 |
I finished this just in time for the Oscars. It’s the basis of the best picture winner “Oppenheimer” & I loved seeing the way the book was adapted to become a film. This is a long in-depth biography, but he was a complicated man. It was also a perfect nonfiction read for New Mexico. The authors did an excellent job diving into the history of the making of the atomic bomb and Oppenheimer’s role in the saga. I wouldn’t read it again but it was good.
bookworm12 | 46 outras críticas | Mar 11, 2024 |



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