May 23

James Mann is a scholar in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is “The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power.”

One day in the spring of 1977, an American intelligence operative working in Beirut sent home to his wife a chatty but carefully worded letter that could have gotten him fired, if his bosses had ever discovered it. “When I got to the usual place, he drove me into the camp, and I met #1 with the beard,” the letter said. “He’s funny-looking as his pictures, but a very bright and sincere man. Headquarters would go into outer space if they learned about this.”

The letter-writer was Robert Ames, one of the U.S. government’s top specialists on the Middle East, who would be killed in a 1983 truck bombing in Beirut. “Headquarters” meant the Central Intelligence Agency. And “#1 with the beard” was none other than the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Ames was in the process of opening a secret channel between the U.S. government and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

To grasp how remarkable this was, consider that the U.S. government had said repeatedly that it would not talk to the PLO. President Jimmy Carter quickly accepted the resignation of United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young in 1979 after he met with a PLO representative in New York. In this case, Ames was meeting not just with someone from the PLO but with its leader.

Kai Bird’s new book, “The Good Spy,” is full of great morsels and details such as this letter. Also the biographer of prominent American figures such as John McCloy, the Bundy brothers and J. Robert Oppenheimer, Bird has found in Ames a wonderful new subject.

Ames was the CIA’s leading Arabist. After his spy work in places such as Lebanon and Yemen, he rose to become the agency’s national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, overseeing all its analytic work for these regions. He helped the Carter administration prepare for the Camp David negotiations, gave President Ronald Reagan briefings on the Middle East and became a close adviser to Secretary of State George Shultz.

He spoke Arabic. While he dealt regularly with the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, he did not embrace the Israelis’ views. “To say that Bob Ames was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause would be an understatement,” Bird concludes. Indeed, in another stunning letter home in 1977 as Lebanon descended into civil war, Ames wrote: “I know I can get the Palestinians to stop, but [the] old USG [United States Government] will not pressure the Israelis to stop supporting the Christians. I guess if the Israelis lead us right into WWIII, we still won’t put pressure on them.”

Bird had a slight personal connection to Ames. Bird’s father was a Foreign Service officer. When the author was a teenager, the family lived in Saudi Arabia, in an American consular compound, next door to Ames (whom he knew then only as another diplomat). That casual tie proved vital to Bird’s book. Years later, when he approached Ames’s widow, Yvonne, she remembered her neighbor of long ago. And eventually she handed over Ames’s letters, which provided a wealth of information about his daily activities, his personal views and his work at the CIA.

The portrait of daily life at the CIA is one of the strengths of the book. Most books about the agency (such as Thomas Powers’s “The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA”) focus on the top levels. But in “The Good Spy,” we get to see what it was like to be down in the ranks.

Keeping the secrets? How’s this: Ames’s own children didn’t know where he worked; they thought he was a diplomat. One summer, Ames got his oldest daughter, Cathy, 19, an internship at the State Department. Every morning, he drove her to Foggy Bottom, pretended to go to his office at State, slipped out to his real job in Langley and then returned to his fake State Department office to drive her home at night.

Ames, however, was not your typical spook. He was too cerebral, and he didn’t like to drink. He did not conform to the standard protocols of the CIA’s clandestine service — especially in recruiting agents. The CIA old-timers insisted on a very formal process: You targeted an individual, got him to take money, had him sign receipts for it and persuaded him to agree to become an informant. Ames cultivated much looser relationships.

The heart of Bird’s narrative concerns Ames’s unfolding relationship with Ali Hassan Salameh, chief of the PLO’s Force 17 intelligence unit and a top operations officer for Arafat. It was Salameh who drove Ames to his meeting with the Palestinian leader. Bird is not the first to tell the story of the CIA’s contacts with Salameh and the PLO. He gives credit to reporter Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times for breaking the story in 1981 and to David Ignatius of The Washington Post for describing the Ames-Salameh relationship at length in his spy novel“Agents of Innocence.”

Yet Bird’s detailed account is nonetheless compelling. Ames cultivated Salameh and began getting information from him. The CIA wanted a formal recruitment; Ames objected, knowing that Salameh would say no. So in 1970, the CIA sent another spy, who in a Rome hotel room offered Salameh $300,000 a month for his services. Salameh rebuffed this offer in a novel way. The next day, he had an intermediary tell the CIA officer that Salameh “said you were willing to finance the PLO to the tune of $35 million a year — and recognize the PLO. He’s already sent a coded message to Arafat. The Chairman is very pleased.”

That was the end of the formal recruitment, but Ames pursued the relationship and friendship with Salameh for years, at one point getting the approval of CIA Director George H.W. Bush to bring Salameh and his girlfriend to the United States for tours of Disneyland and Hawaii.

Ames and the CIA were dealing with a figure whom the Mossad was trying to kill. The Israelis linked Salameh to Black September, the shadowy Palestinian group that had waged terrorist attacks around the world, including the operation that killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

In the most chilling section of the book, Mossad officials told the CIA that they wanted to assassinate Salameh and asked if he was secretly working for the Americans. If he was a formal CIA agent, he would not be killed (but the Mossad would be entitled to see everything he was telling the CIA). Ames rushed to Lebanon and asked Salameh for permission to tell the Israelis he was a fully recruited CIA asset. Salameh said no. A couple of months later, Salameh was killed in a remote-controlled car bombing in Beirut.

Bird’s book has some flaws. There is a lot of repetition, as points are made again and again and characters are introduced more than once. The writing is disjointed: The narrative loses some steam after Salameh’s death, and much more as the book meanders on after Ames’s death.

Yet “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.

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James Mann is a scholar in residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is “The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power.”

THE GOOD SPY

The Life and Death of Robert Ames

By Kai Bird

Crown. 430 pp. $26