The Secret Life of Robert Ames

By Pillar, Paul R. | The National Interest, May-June 2014 | Go to article overview

The Secret Life of Robert Ames

Pillar, Paul R., The National Interest

Kai Bird, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (New York: Crown, 2014), 448 pp., $26.00.

The secret world of clandestine operators and the more public world of statesmen intersect in a number of ways. The gathering of useful information through espionage is well known, but the clandestine operator can also help take action and not just inform it. Sometimes what he or she does is given a formal structure and called covert action. At other times the help is less formal, such as making contacts and opening channels of communication that the statesman cannot, for one reason or another, embrace openly or directly. An inspired and skillful operator can make important things happen.

What the operator can accomplish, however, is ultimately limited by the political constraints that apply to the statesmen for whom he or she works. Inspiration and skill can open promising avenues, but the constraints may keep them from being fully explored. The clandestine operator, exposed to dangers that typify the spy world when the action is hottest and the opportunities greatest, is as likely to experience tragedy as triumph.

Of course, the intrigue and danger of that world have provided material for an entire genre of fiction. David Ignatius launched a successful second career as a writer of spy novels with Agents of Innocence, which is based on events in the Middle East he had covered as a journalist. Set mostly in Beirut in the 1970s, the story involves American intelligence officers trying to swim through a cauldron of conflict involving Israelis, Palestinians and other Arabs. Although this novel was a roman a clef, Ignatius could take the fiction writer's prerogative of bending the story in his preferred directions.

Now Kai Bird has written a vivid nonfictional account of many of those same events. Bird demonstrated his chops as a biographer with a national-security specialty in earlier books on John J. McCloy, the Bundy brothers and J. Robert Oppenheimer. He centers The Good Spy on Robert Ames, the CIA operations officer who did more than anyone else to open a channel of communication between the United States and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) at a time when the need for such a channel and the perils of opening it were both great. It is a reflection of the drama of this patch of history as well as Bird's skill in rendering it that the book is as compelling a read as most spy novels. Not detracting from its page-turning quality is our knowledge of the protagonist's tragic end: his death in the rubble of the U.S. embassy in Beirut when a truck bomb demolished it in 1983.

Ames is less well known to the public than several other American intelligence officers of his and earlier generations, including ones who had operated in the same part of the world and accomplished no more than he had. Probably the main reason for this difference is that those other officers lived to write their own books and Ames did not. Bird's volume fills that gap; while he presents other perspectives he is consistently sympathetic toward the mission Ames saw himself performing and Ames's views of the best way of doing so.

The Good Spy depicts multiple and often-conflicting considerations that go into planning and conducting clandestine operations, a diversity of opinions that often exist internally about how to conduct them and complexity in the CIA's relations with its policy-making customers. The book also describes the personal stresses that accompany the life of a clandestine operator, including geographic separation from a spouse while trying to support a family (which in Ames's case included six children) on a government salary.

The principal contribution of Bird's book, however, is to illuminate earlier chapters of a political and diplomatic story that challenges U.S. policy makers to this day. It is the story of the United States being caught between Israel and its regional adversaries as those enemies have waged war against each other both openly and in the shadows. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Secret Life of Robert Ames


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.