Firas Maksad

The “Good Spy” & America’s secret wars in the Middle East

Iran requested Imam Musa al-Sadr's killing according to CIA info

A Lebanese policeman (far left), a French soldier, a U.S. Marine (with helmet) and a French soldier stand guard 18 April 1983 in front of the destroyed section of the U.S. embassy in Beirut

At a time when the administration of US President Barack Obama is embroiled in controversy following its decision to swap five senior Taliban commanders for an American soldier, a thrilling new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Kai Bird lifts the veil off several CIA cloak-and-dagger operations in the Middle East.


In “The Good Spy,” Bird offers a well-researched biography of Robert “Bob” Ames, described as perhaps the CIA’s best authority on the Middle East, who perished in the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut. The story, however, does not end there. In the shadowy world of espionage, where friends and enemies are often difficult to distinguish, we discover that some of the world’s most wanted terrorists may have benefited from CIA training programs, and perhaps even paid vacations.


Bob Ames made his name in the US intelligence community by being the first to open a secret channel to the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) – the 1970s’ equivalent of Al-Qaeda in the eyes of US policymakers. He did what no other American spy had dared, cultivating a clandestine relationship with Yasser Arafat’s feared security chief Ali Hassan Salameh, otherwise known as “The Red Prince.”


Ames’ secret friendship with Salameh, which was especially unpopular with the Israelis, arguably paved the way for the Palestinian-Israeli peace process that culminated with the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords. It was also a nonaggression pact that worked to ensure that Americans were not targeted by PLO operations.


But perhaps in his effort to memorialize Ames, the author overstates the value of what was achieved through this secret channel. Although Palestinian militants did protect American instillations in Lebanon, the understanding was seriously challenged when, in March 1973, the PLO machine-gunned the American ambassador and his charge d’affaires in Sudan.  


Nonetheless the deal held, and in return for information and protection, the CIA warned Salameh of several assassination plots against him by Mossad, the Israeli secret service. After Arafat and Salameh narrowly escaped a 1973 Israeli commando operation in Beirut, Arafat reportedly admitted, “Okay, whatever Bob (Ames) says from now, it is like written in the Qur’an.”  


Perhaps most revealing about the convoluted world of clandestine operations, the CIA protected a US designated terrorist who allegedly masterminded the deadly attacks on the 1972 Munich Olympics. According to Bird’s well-placed sources, the agency even took Salameh and his stunning wife, the 1971 Miss Universe, on a Disney World vacation in Florida courtesy of the US government.


But all good things come to an end, and despite Bob Ames’ best efforts to protect the “Red Prince,” he eventually succumbed to a car bomb planted by Mossad agents operating in Beirut, in January of 1979.  


In one of the book’s most consequential ironies – and there are plenty to be sure – Bird reveals that CIA-friendly Salameh recruited a Lebanese Shiite teenager into the PLO’s elite guard unit. This young man may have benefited from CIA training to “professionalize” Arafat’s bodyguards. His name was Imad Mughniyeh and he would go on to become Hezbollah’s top military commander, helping Iran carry out the 1983 bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut. The attack killed Bob Ames and 63 others, mostly innocent Lebanese civilians.


Kai Bird cannot attest if Imad Mughniyeh and Bob Ames ever crossed paths during undisclosed CIA-PLO meetings. But his well-weaved tale of revolutionaries, spies, and beauty queens delivers beyond Salameh’s death and up to today’s nuclear standoff between Iran and the West.


Relying on interviews with retired American and Israeli intelligence sources, Bird vividly describes how, in a series of joint CIA and Mossad operations, one of Bob Ames’ killers ends up dead, while the other is given a free pass to US shores where he “resides comfortably today.”


Iranian Brigadier General Ali Reza Asgari, who together with Imad Mughniyeh is believed to have overseen the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, defected to Turkey in 2007. He had risen to become deputy defense minister but fell out of favor with former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. According to Bird, some in the CIA must have been furious to see Ames’ assassin given protection on American soil. General Asgari, however, was a very valuable catch and the White House was determined to have him.


Quoting former intelligence sources, the book claims that Asgari was brought to a CIA safe house near Washington, DC for a detailed debrief in early 2007. Information Asgari provided might have contributed to the September 2007 Israeli air strike on Syria’s Al-Kibar nuclear reactor, and also to the joint CIA-Mossad operation that killed Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in February of 2008.


A gripping page-turner, Kai Bird’s “The Good Spy” provides shocking and well-documented revelations that compensate for the book’s lacking analysis. Among other surprises, it exposes how Iran allegedly viewed the revered Shia cleric Musa al-Sadr as an obstacle to its influence in Lebanon. A senior aid of Ayatollah Khomeini, Imam Mohamed Beheshti, is said to have coordinated Sadr’s killing with Libya. This otherwise mysterious episode is described in great detail, relying on rare intelligence information acquired by the CIA from the PLO and other sources.   


Most of all, Bird’s academic work reminds readers that America and the Middle East have been locked in a convoluted dance of death and dependency for many decades. Can President Obama secure US interests in this turbulent, but still vital, part of the world by negotiating with Iran and the Taliban? Is the CIA in secret communication with Hezbollah about the common threat of Al-Qaeda in the Levant? That much remains unknown.


But if history is any indicator, America will need many more “good spies” as it attempts to navigate the treacherous landscape of Middle East politics.


Firas Maksad is the managing director of Global Policy Advisors, a Washington-based political consultancy. He is also a lecturer at the University of Maryland's Department of Government and Politics. He tweets @firasmaksad

Not the end of the story. (AFP Photo/UPI)

"According to Bird’s well-placed sources, the agency even took Salameh and his stunning wife, the 1971 Miss Universe, on a Disney World vacation in Florida courtesy of the US government."

  • Jsmit

    What a terrible writer. Now Lebanon needs better writers

    June 14, 2014