The Wax Conspiracy

The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames by Kai Bird

Kai Bird threads scores of reports, emails, interviews and articles into a generously thick account of Robert Ames and burrows into the head of the CIA agent. An intimate look behind a company man and how much he loved his family, the assignment and his time with the locals.

It's a frank and direct account drawing up the life, training and humble lifestyle of this CIA operative with a taste and skill for speaking in the native, local Arabic tongue. A mould of spy archaic in these times of wire-tapping and engaging with the locals either from another continent or from behind a torture device.

What's left on the page then is the impact Ames had on many people and the relationships he nurtured during his years moving up the ranks. He rankled those who didn't get his nuance or optimism for peace in the Middle East, but he got the job done and loved the agency and being stationed in what others would call hell holes.

The Good Spy is also an involved history lesson on the troubled Middle East, the emergence of Hezbollah, Al Qaeda and Force 17. Talks and dealings with the PLO, Yasir Arafat, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict come up many times, and it's sad to see what looked like promise fall and shatter as things just could not quite come together following various events and setbacks.

Ames occasionally falls into the background as others take the spotlight, their actions and motivations forcing Ames to quell uncomfortableness back in Washington in his reports and cables. Two such people, Ali Hassan Salameh, aka The Red Prince, and Mustafa Zein, feature more than a few times. Salameh being quite the character, and someone the CIA could not get their head around. Especially when Ames never recruited such a valuable asset onto the payroll against many requests from higher-up to do so. He knew how to handle people in a variety of diplomatic ways and when others went around, it always ended up messier for it.

Every now and then your face melts off of your skull as the reporting and recounts of events are so dry as the descriptions and narration are methodical, in a raw as-the-facts-happen style.

As much as it is on the life of Robert Ames and his career in the CIA, the biography is also about strength of love and support from his wife, Yvonne, as Robert takes the family and assignments to places all over the Middle East with an enthusiasm others in the agency could not quite understand. Glimpses of their missives across distances afford a beautiful show of their strength and connection as a couple and family.

Knowing the book will cover Ames' death, it's the chapter, "Beirut Destiny", that drops in with exact time and location details that sets a tense stage. Minutes and set pieces described in the distant voice pushes you right on the edge as you wait and turn the page readying, but never really, of that moment when the US embassy in Beirut was bombed in 1983. The carnage is brutal and leaves nothing to guesswork or imagination in its gruesome, gory details. Emotions are wrought as his family back in the United States come to learn of his death.

The following chapter closes in on the man behind the bombing, Imad Mughniyeh, who would also "inspire" and teach Osama bin Laden how to be a better, more noticeable terrorist. Chilling to see what kinds of things and people decades ago still affect the current day.

The Good Spy is a dense and intriguing session that takes your brain out for a deep lesson in politics and world affairs in an almost conversational, mostly journalistic, representation of the life, death and personal story of Robert Ames.

The publisher provided a review copy.

Ethan Switch

Reviewed on Monday, 30 June 2014

The Wax Conspiracy


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