A Spy who Loved the Palestinians

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"Humanism is the only - I would go so far as saying the final- resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history."

-Edward Said


Kai Bird is a writer and journalist who has written a number of prize-winning books, among them, “Hiroshima’s Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy,” and “Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis.”  

As a reporter for “The Nation,” he spent a month in Tehran during the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  Recipient of many awards for his books and journalistic work, he wrote his most famous book, “The Good Spy,” a New York Times best seller published in 2014, which is based on the life and times of Robert Ames, who died in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.  He argues that Ames, who had been a CIA agent, was in fact one of the few individuals who tried to bring the Palestinians and Israelis together for a peaceful solution.  In his view, Ames was rare among his other colleagues for sympathizing with the Arab viewpoint and in particular that of the Palestinians. The Daily Beast’s blog on The Good Spy is as follows: “Long after you put it down, the story comes to haunt you.”  

Kai Bird is now working on a book on the 39th President of the United States, James Earl Carter. Kai which means mustard in Mandarin Chinese, is a name given to him by his father.    

Here is the interview:

8a7e2ypr.jpgPhoto credit: Fariba Amini

Why did you decide to write this book? 

I have always been interested in spies—like every reader! But after my last book, a memoir of my childhood in the Middle East, I was looking around for a new topic. I had mentioned in one sentence in this memoir that when I was 10-13 years old our next door neighbor in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia was Robert Ames, a man whom I knew much later had been a CIA officer at the time, and who had been killed in Beirut in 1983. On a whim, I looked up his name on the internet, and found a reference to a civil suit filed in US federal district court in 2003. The suit had been filed by Ames’s widow, Yvonne Ames, and many other relatives and survivors of the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing. The court testimony was all available to read on line. And it was very emotional material So this caused me to think that there was enough material here to write a book, at least one about the Beirut embassy bombing. Later, I found much more material that allowed me to write a full-blown biography.

Why did you call him a good spy?  Aren’t spies usually not “good?”   

Yes, the title is ironic. Spies are usually thought to be nefarious, bad guys. But Ames was also just very good at his work. He is a “good” spy in that he was highly empathetic and intelligent and determined to understand the Arabs on their own terms. So he studied their language and culture and respected the peoples of the region. This empathy made him a very good spy. 

What was his relationship with one of the main characters of the book, Ali Hassan Salameh?  Who was he and how important was he to the Palestinian movement? 

Ali Hassan Salameh was Yasir Arafat’s de facto intelligence chief, and his personal body guard and friend. Though very young, Ali Hassan was smart, cosmopolitan, and extremely loyal to both Arafat and the Palestinian revolution. Some thought he was so charismatic that he might someday inherit Arafat’s mantle. Arafat treated him as a son. Ali Hassan was someone who Ames initially tried to recruit. But when Ames realized that Salameh was “unrecruitable” he nevertheless turned their relationship into a friendship, which in turn became an unofficial back-channel to the US Government. 

You mention that Salameh had been targeted before and yet he was not careful even though he had been warned. In a way he was careless.  Why did Mossad assassinate him?  Was he a threat?  

This is all in the book, but briefly, Ali Hassan was not careless, he just was fatalistic. Mossad had long wanted to kill him precisely because they knew he was the secret back-channel to the Americans. They later claimed that they though he was responsible for the 1972 Olympic killings, but they actually probably knew this evidence was weak….their real motivation was as described. 

By the time they succeeded in assassinating him he was not a live threat—just the opposite, they knew he was a liberalizing influence n Arafat, and was one of those PLO figures who favored a compromise, i.e. a two state solution. But that was another reason to kill him. The Israelis at the time were not interested in a two state solution with the Palestinians. 

Who was behind the bombing of the Embassy in Beirut?  Ames died in that incident along with many others.  Who was the real target? 

I argue in The Good Spy that the preponderance of evidence shows that the April 1983 truck bomb attack on the US embassy in Beirut was carried out by operatives from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard stationed in Baalbek, Lebanon. I name the IRG intelligence officer Ali Reza Asghari as the mastermind of the operation. Interestingly, Asghari later defected to America in 2007. But it was an operation carried out with funds and explosives from Iran. The whole point of the attack was to persuade the Americans to withdraw from Lebanon—and the attack was successful in persuading the Reagan Administration to withdraw from Lebanon. 

In your investigation in writing the book, what really happened to Imam Musa Sadr who disappeared in Libya?  As we know, there are many theories about him and his disappearance. There is a photo of Salameh and Imam Musa Sadr.  What was their relationship like?  And why do you think Musa Sadr had to be eliminated? 

Salameh and Imam Musa Sadr were acquainted. Each knew each other as political players in the Lebanese chessboard. I think Ali Hassan respected Musa Sadr, and saw in him an ally to the Palestinian cause. I do not think Musa Sadr “had” to be assassinated. It is a tragedy for Lebanon and Iran that he disappeared. But I suggest in The Good Spy that he was “disappeared” by Libyan authorities in 1978 under the express influence of Iranian revolutionary figure, most specifically, the Imam Mohammed Beheshti. The relatively liberal and intellectual Musa Sadr had become a threat to Beheshti’s hardline Shi’a political ideology on the eve of the Iranian revolution. Beheshti and Musa Sadr were theological rivals, and my sources suggest that Musa Sadr was “disappeared” in Libya with the encouragement of Beheshti. 

You were in Iran during the first weeks of the Iranian Revolution.  What was your impression then and now? 

I spent three weeks in Iran in March 1979. I was a young 28-year old reporter for The Nation, a left-of center magazine. I was sympathetic to the anti-Shah revolution, and yet, within three weeks I quickly understood that the liberal revolution was being hijacked by conservative forces controlled by Ayatollah Khomeini. 

You mention the name Asgari?  Who was he and what happened to him?   Why would the U.S. government give refuge to someone who was involved in the killing of many American diplomats and citizens? 

We are not sure where Asgari is residing today. I believe he initially came to Washington, DC after his defection in February 2007, and is probably still living in America under a new alias, provided by some US intelligence agency. But he could also be living in Europe somewhere or possibly in Israel. 

Is there any hope left with peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, especially now We know no U.S. administration has been able to bring the two parties together for a real and final peace. It would seem that now with a Trump “administration” the task will be even harder. Are you hopeful? 

I am not hopeful. I am afraid that a rational “two-state” compromise solution to this conflict is running out of time. By this I mean that the Israeli settlement project is making a two state solution impracticable. Trump and the people around him have absolutely no understanding of the issues, and I am afraid they strongly inclined to let the region drift into further chaos.

What is your take on this election and the future of the Middle East? 

I fear that a President Trump and his clueless advisers will stumble into yet another American war in the Middle East. It will be a disaster.

What are you working on now?   

I am trying to ignore the dreaded Middle East, and so for the last year I have been working on a biography of Jimmy Carter. 

Why Jimmy Carter? 

Carter is much more interesting than most recent modern presidents. He is certainly the most intelligent man to have occupied the White House since John F. Kennedy. He is very complicated, being both a man of religion, and an engineer trained in nuclear science. He was a radical populist on many domestic issues, but a fiscal conservative. And his presidency was a tipping point in the history of American liberalism. So it is a great, untold story. Also, as an historian, I was attracted to his story because unlike the Bushes or Clintons, the Carter presidential papers are relatively open and available for research.