- - Tuesday, July 1, 2014


By Kai Bird
Crown Publishers, $26, 430 pages

One task of an intelligence service is the cultivation of back-channel contacts with an adversary who, for whatever reason, cannot be publicly recognized. Such was the specialty of Robert Ames, one of the more remarkable case officers in CIA history.

Ironically, Ames‘ success came because he chose to ignore several basic rules for a case officer. His major recruited source was Ali Hassan Salameh, the chief intelligence officer of the Palestine Liberation Organization. However, Ames declined to make him a controlled agent, and he rebuffed attempts by other CIA officers to put him on the payroll for $300,000 a month, an offer which Salameh heatedly refused. (Or so Salameh claimed to a friend on the periphery of the PLO.)

In dealing with Salameh, Ames walked dangerous political ground. Declared U.S. public policy at the time was not to have any relations with the PLO because of its terrorism, and Salameh’s hands by no means were clean. Author Kai Bird ticks off a long list of deadly attacks against Israelis in which he was involved.

However, as an intelligence officer, Ames had the conviction that the United States should establish some contacts with the PLO leadership, be they formal or otherwise, with the goal of finding common ground and possibly peace in the Middle East.

Son of a Philadelphia steelworker, Ames went from LaSalle University to the U.S. Army, which sent him to a remote Army Security Agency listening post in what was then the Ethiopian province of Eritrea. On his own, Ames learned Arabic, and he developed an early zest for roaming dusty and often deadly streets.

Joining the CIA after discharge, Ames ended up in Beirut as a case officer tasked with gathering information on the PLO. Gregarious, and a man who generated trust from his contacts, Ames met a Lebanese Shiite named Mustafa Zein, the son of a wealthy family, who attended college in Illinois.

Now an entrepreneur, Mr. Zein had contacts ranging from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to the rulers of Abu Dhabi. To Ames, Mr. Zein’s value was an “access agent,” someone who (in spy-speak) does not have firsthand information on his own, but who can put intelligence officers into contact with persons who do. He took no money. Mr. Bird quotes a CIA officer that his desire was for “the United States to comprehend and sympathize with the Arab and Palestinian perspective on the situation in the Middle East.”

One early contact Mr. Zein arranged for Ames was with Salameh, who was on the council of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, a group under the PLO. Salameh’s goal was to convert his “Force 17” into an intelligence arm; he was widely regarded as second only to Arafat in the PLO hierarchy.

Why should Salameh talk with a CIA officer? As Mr. Bird writes, Ames gave him a message: “You Arabs claim your views are not heard in Washington. Here is your chance. The president of the United States is listening.” Perhaps Ames overstated it, perhaps not. President Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, was aware of what Ames was doing, and approved, as did Richard Helms, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Physically, Salameh had a rock star persona. Only 27 when he met Ames, the “Red Prince,” as he was known, wore “a tight-fitting black shirt unbuttoned to show his hairy chest” and his “wavy, jet-black hair was thick and brushed straight back.” Although married, he was a chronic philanderer. (The CIA paid for him and a girlfriend to visit Disney World, New Orleans and Hawaii.)

Remarkably, Ames and Salameh negotiated what Mr. Bird calls “a virtual non-aggression pact between the U.S. government and Arafat’s Fatah guerrillas” and while he accepted trips with his girlfriend, he did not take money.

One reason that Salameh refused any formal ties with the CIA was his knowledge that the agency shared information with the Israeli Mossad. He did not risk such an association even at arm’s length. Even during the de facto alliance with the CIA, his Force 17 continued deadly attacks against Israeli targets.

As Mr. Bird writes, the Israelis knew of the relationship, and asked Ames directly whether Salameh “was CIA.” Given negative replies, Mossad set out to dispose of the Red Prince. Ames warned him repeatedly to be careful. Eventually, of course, Mossad got its man, via a car bomb.

Ames made a last futile attempt as a peacemaker, arranging a very secret meeting with Arafat himself (something he disclosed to his wife in a letter, but not to CIA colleagues). Nothing resulted. Ames‘ next assignment was in Langley as a national intelligence officer for the Near East. He was paying a routine visit to the American Embassy in Beirut in 1983 when a massive bomb destroyed the building, killing him and 62 other people. He left a widow and six children.

Three decades later, the region remains in bloody turmoil, with no Bob Ames in sight. In the end, does the sort of inside intelligence he gathered really make a difference? Longtime CIA colleague Graham Fuller is cynical. “You have this notion that all you need to do is get the right skinny, the right facts before the policymaker . But gradually, you realize that policymakers don’t care. And then the revelation hits you that U.S. foreign policy is not fact-driven.”

One Israeli officer called Ames “an American Lawrence [of Arabia], a Lawrence with Stars and Stripes.” Despite the Salameh killing, Ames got along well with the Israelis in liaison meetings. One said that Ames understood the Israeli predicament: “Bob’s sympathy for Israel came from his being decent.”

A Chinese-language edition of Joseph Goulden’s 1982 book, “Korea: The Untold Story of the War,” is being published in August by Beijing Xiron Books.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide