A deft practitioner of old-school espionage

Alan Wallace
| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

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 awallace@tribweb.com).


“Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises” by Timothy F. Geithner (Crown) — Critics of the former Treasury secretary (2009-13) and how he dealt with the financial crisis that began while he was the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's president likely won't be mollified by his memoir's defense of his “too big to fail” approach that pumped taxpayer dollars into Wall Street investment banks. He admits difficulty in recognizing the impending crisis stemming from a housing bubble and in grasping its extent once that bubble burst but maintains his efforts succeeded and other approaches would have made things even worse. As its author's definitive account of that period, look for this book to take its place alongside last year's book by former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke among primary sources that scholars, pundits, journalists and politicians analyzing and debating the Great Recession will use for years to come in.


“The Bargain from the Bazaar: A Family's Day of Reckoning in Lahore” by Haroon K. Ullah (Public Affairs) — Based on eight years of field research, this book illustrates Pakistan's dilemmas through the story of one middle-class family whose patriarch, married to a nurse, runs a jewelry shop in South Asia's largest open bazaar along with their opium-addict eldest son. The youngest son pursues a law degree and favors a secular future for Pakistan, while the middle son takes terrorist training from a group linked to the Taliban. The author, a Pakistani-American scholar and diplomat recently featured on the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh's weekly KQV-AM show, “Pittsburgh Global Press Conference,” changes the family's names for their protection and employs novelistic techniques. That approach to his nonfiction narrative may trouble some readers, but “The Bargain from the Bazaar” spotlights complexities that are essential for understanding Pakistan and its people.


“An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of States: How Taxes, Energy, and Worker Freedom will Change the Balance of Power Among States” by Arthur B. Laffer, Stephen Moore, Rex A. Sinquefield and Travis H. Brown (Wiley) — The authors — the namesake economist of the “Laffer Curve,” the chief economist of The Heritage Foundation and a retired investment executive and an entrepreneur, both free-market, low-tax advocates in Missouri — make a detailed, exhaustive case for state-level tax reform. Their argument relies heavily on quantitative analysis of the effects of such policy variables as personal and corporate income tax rates, estate and inheritance taxes, overall tax burden and right-to-work laws. Their book, whose title alludes to Adam Smith's classic 18th-century text on nations' wealth, shows convincingly that states can't tax themselves into prosperity — and that trying to do so hinders states' competitiveness.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy