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A deft practitioner of old-school espionage

Alan Wallace
| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
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As Americans debate the U.S. intelligence community's use of electronic monitoring and data, Kai Bird's “The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames” (Crown, available Tuesday) spotlights traditional “human intelligence” by telling a remarkable CIA operative's story.

Bird, who shared a Pulitzer Prize as co-author of a 2005 biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, was a U.S. diplomat's adolescent son when Bob Ames was his family's neighbor in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia — Ames' first posting as a CIA case officer. Bird would also spend considerable time in Beirut, where Ames died in the April 18, 1983, U.S. Embassy bombing.

After learning in 2010 of a U.S. lawsuit filed against Iran over that bombing, Bird tracked down dozens of American, Israeli and Palestinian intelligence figures who wanted Ames' story to be told. The CIA didn't help but his widow did, sharing his letters.

Ames emerges as a spy who built bridges of respect and trust in the Arab world — most notably with Yasser Arafat's intelligence chief. That unprecedented, clandestine CIA-PLO link laid groundwork for the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians. But both Ames and his PLO contact would fall victim to Mideast political violence.

Aided by another of Ames' former Mideast contacts, Bird provides what the publisher calls “the shocking truth” about the identity and whereabouts of the embassy bombing's mastermind. But he's conscious of larger insights that can be drawn from Ames' story.

In comments provided by the publisher, Bird suggests it should give readers pause regarding U.S. officials' post-9/11 emphasis on “technical intercept intelligence.” He says Ames, by contrast, had “the ability of a smart case officer to form genuine friendships with people in a dangerous part of the world.”

That so many on all sides still deeply regret Ames' loss is a testament to the value of the old-school espionage he practiced.

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or


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