American spies and the contemporary Middle East: Bob Ames and Abu Hassan Salameh

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There seems to be an increase in the number of books by and about former (or current) US spies. The phenomenon raises questions about the motives and purpose of all those books and articles that all share a glorification of US spy agencies and their men (rarely are women in US intelligence agencies portrayed as heroes as men are). But we know that US intelligence agencies don’t permit former spies or analysts to publish books and articles without previous screening and editing and approval by a US government censor. The legal justification is that the government wants to make sure that no intended or unintended release of information from classified information occurs. But the lines are not clear-cut: the government can (and has) censor what it may deem to be politically damaging.

The book by Kai Bird, “The Good Spy”, is about the career of former CIA Middle East expert, Robert Ames. Ames, as is well-known, died in the US embassy bombing in Lebanon in April 1983 (I remember that particular explosion well because I was driving from the American University of Beirut and it felt as if my car was lifted up from the ground). But Ames was the subject of an earlier book; David Ignatius of The Washington Post wrote a book of fiction, “Agents of Innocence”, which was also based on the actual life of Ames.

American spies are often presented in US culture as doers of good and promoters of lofty ideals around the world. The books that are published about their travail all focus on them going after “bad guys” but never about their alliances with and reliance on “very bad guys.” The work of US spies in this genre of literature is always clean and neat, and there is no discussion of blood and innocent victims. Spy drones, for example, are causing regular civilian casualties but that work does not get into the dramatic accounts of those books.

Kai Bird tells a very interesting story but the story is flawed and raises many questions. It is true that the author begins the book by informing the readers that despite his efforts, the CIA did not cooperate with him on the writing of this book. Yet, he admits that “more than 40” retired CIA officers spoke to him, and some did so on the record. But those retired individuals are still subject to the laws and agreements regarding the preservation and protection of classified documents. Would they have volunteered names of CIA contacts and even “assets” without the knowledge and agreement of their former employer? Doubtful.

Kai is a diligent researcher and an excellent writer but he is not a Middle East expert despite having spent his boyhood years in the Middle East. Sometimes he is confused by the many facts and names of organizations and sometimes information is mixed up.

The bulk of the book deals with the relationship between Bob Ames and Ali Hassan Salameh - Abu Hassan - of the PLO. (That was also part of the story told by Ignatius in the book aforementioned). Bird says that Salameh was never a spy and was not ever paid by the CIA or any branch of the US government. He was simply providing Ames with “intelligence” in return for…pressures on the PLO to make more concessions to Israel and to make more efforts to protect US and Jordanian interests in the Middle East (oh, and Salameh once received a holster for his gun and a free trip to Disney World with his second wife, Georgina Rizk). This story raises many questions:

1) What was in it for Salameh in this relationship? Such arrangements are always based on reciprocity and mutual benefit and yet we are led to believe that Salameh offered regular intelligence services for the CIA in return for chats with Ames? This was never clarified (neither in this book or in the previous “fictional” account by Ignatius)

2) Abu Hassan Salameh was by all (first hand) accounts a braggart and had a mouth uncharacteristically big for an intelligence operative. Many of the claims he made are not true and that spills over to the image presented about him in this book. In one scene in this book, Abu Hassan allegedly calls Bashir Gemayel to ask him to stop shelling West Beirut and the latter complied. If Salameh had such sway over Gemayel, why did he not use his influence to prevent the various massacres and sieges that were imposed on the Palestinians and Lebanese by that Phalangist war criminal?

3) All those accounts about Abu Hassan (and there are many Israeli and American accounts intended to showcase the alleged skills of the Israeli terrorist organization, the Mossad, although tens of innocent civilians were killed and injured in the bombing that killed Abu Hassan - my childhood friend, Amthal, was injured in the explosion). Those Israeli-originated accounts insist that Abu Hassan had a big role in Black September when in reality his role was highly exaggerated (by him). Those accounts, including this book by Bird, lack a major primary source: the memoirs of Abu Dawud (published in Arabic but the Zionist censorship board in the US prevented its publication). As Abu Dawud tells the story (in intricate and minute details by a man known for his veracity and modesty), Abu Iyad and Abu Dawud ran the Black September show, while Abu Hassan bragged about the deeds of others.

4) Israel has always been known to exaggerate the rank and seniority of the PLO figures that it kills. This book repeats the claim that Abu Hassan was a successor to Arafat, when in reality he belonged to the second-tier of leaders. In fact, Abu Hassan was visible during the Lebanese civil war only because he was sent to negotiate cease-fires with the Phalanges and those who were dispatched for those roles by various organizations were not very senior men. It is true that Arafat loved Abu Hassan and treated him like his son, and indulged his expensive lifestyle but Abu Hassan was not in the same league of people as Abu al-Lutf, Abu al-Hawl, Abu Az-Za`im, Abu Iyad, Abu Jihad, Abu al-Walid, Abu Yusuf al-Najjar, Kamal `Udwan, Khalid al-Hassan, Hani al-Hassan, and Abu al-Adib and scores of other “Abus.” Abu Hassan was in charge of a relatively small strike force, Force 17, and he had to contend with the existence — typical Arafat fashion — of rival and competing intelligence and military branches and apparati. The notion that Abu Hassan had a popular base is ludicrous especially since — unlike, say, Abu Iyad or Abu Dawud — he was incapable of making a speech in a public rally, or at least I never remembered him ever making a public speech (and the reason can’t be due to his love of secrecy because he loved to have his pictures in the papers, and was criticized and mocked for it by his comrades).

5) We are told in this book that the US could have prevented Israel from killing Abu Hassan but that it refrained from doing so only because he was not an actual spy of the CIA. But if he was such a useful asset, why wouldn’t the CIA preserve him? That was never explained.

6) It is stated in the book that Arafat authorized the Ames-Salameh channel but Arafat never confined his channels with key governments to one source only? That was also never explained.

7) If Salameh was such a valuable asset for the CIA and a good friend of Ames why are all former colleagues of Ames keen on exposing his relationship with the US government knowing that it will affect his standing in Palestinian history?

But the book has other problems as well. The entire Ames-Salameh story is based largely on the unpublished memoirs of a Lebanese businessman, Mustafa Zein, who we are told was also a good friend to Ames but that he never got paid by the CIA (but he did receive a gift of a briefcase with a hidden tape recorder — that was prior to the iPhone days). But Bird did not subject Zein’s account to scrutiny: how do we know that Zein’s story was factual? There is at least one element in his story that is not believable: that he — Zein — was also close to `Imad Mughniyeh and that Mughniyeh casually revealed to him the name of the Iranian official who planned the US embassy bombing that killed Ames. That Mughniyeh, who had built a career based on secrecy would so casually drop such key secret information to a US-based Lebanese businessman is not very believable. (And the story forgets that the ages and experiences of Mughniyeh in 1983 and Hassan Nasrallah would not have permitted them to play the central roles attributed to them in decision-making. Furthermore, Nasrallah was a still a religious student then).

Also, the book contains another explosive story: that Basil Kubaysi, who was gunned down by Israeli terrorists in 1973, was an informer for the CIA. Here again the nature of the relationship was left vague but there were several hints in the book that US officials knew that the US had two key PLO sources in the 1970s (in reference to Salameh and Kubaysi). But assuming that Kubaysi was the informer why would his name be exposed? Since when does the US government reveal the names of its informers? Wouldn’t that information be treated as confidential, classified even, by law? And what is the matter with the US government that it is keen on exposing its sources in the Palestinian movement — and only in the Palestinian movement — when there isn’t a single name exposed in any of the “moderate” Arab regimes where the US surely had many more spies and assets? Is there something suspicious about only exposing the names of individuals involved in the Palestinian struggle? Does that not reek of pro-Israeli propaganda? How did Kubaysi meet with Ames when Kubaysi’s “missions” were largely in Europe and Canada? So Kubaysi, who was involved in secret missions, took time off to share information with Ames?

The author (or even Ames?) does not seem to know about the role of Kubaysi. Kubaysi was not a decision-maker in the PFLP but was in fact involved in the highly secretive International Operations department run by Wadi` Haddad. That Haddad would rely on somebody with ties to the Americans is not credible. And if Kubaysi was supplying information to Ames, why did his services not include supplying information about operations before their perpetration to prevent them? (That also applies to Salameh because his relationship with Ames did not for some reason cause a halt on the attack on Saudi embassy in Khartoum in 1973).

There is a similar story told in the book about what seems like brief encounters with `Abdul-Fattah Isma`il of the South Yemeni Marxist experiment. The book does not claim that Isma`il ever rendered services to Ames or the US government but the encounter with Ames is told in such a way as if Isma`il was willing to share top secrets with an American man that he has just met. This is also not plausible.

In addition, there are factual errors in the book: Hezbollah never assumed responsibility for the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut in 1983; Ahmed Qasir was a member of Amal movement and not Hezbollah; and Bashir Gemayel did NOT attend the funeral of Abu Hassan Salameh; he would have been torn to pieces by the mourners in West Beirut.

Don’t get me wrong: this is a fascinating read but the book should be read with great caution - it is a mixture of facts, fiction, bravado, propaganda, lies, and unsubstantiated claims. It does give an interesting glimpse of some (only some) of the work of US spy agencies in the Middle East. As for the full story and the unvarnished truth? One has to turn not to US publishers but to Snowden and Wikileaks.

Dr. As’ad AbuKhalil is a professor of Political Science at California State University, Stanislaus, a lecturer and the author of The Angry Arab News Service. He tweets @asadabukhalil.


"doers of good & presenters of lofty ideas around the world"

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior:-
The media & everyone else wove a story pertaining to the French & their might, prowess, courage & the French bowed.
The Kiwi boys & their people laughed at the French wannabe pussies taking credit for something that they did not have the brains to "how to" & were most likely gutless to do.

Hannibal took 37 elephants over the Alps :-
They teach this story even today.
Ring the zoo & they will tell you that it is impossible.
Yet, even at UNIVERSITY = your mob professor - they believe this rubbish....... ( /? )

Reg., the who done it aspect of The Rainbow Warrior saga :-
There is a wonderful movie from New Zealand, Once Were Warriors - male culture & their women, among other things.
The exceptionally attractive, Temuera Morrison plays the role of Jake The Muss Heke.
The French Special Services don't stand up at all to these men.
So we think that it was most likely the boys from N.Z. who done it !
Stay cool man - life it too short to be knotted.

& bravado says it all, I think !

This review makes a few good points, but in other ways it is naive. The US government is not a single entity. Former CIA agents regularly do things that the US government does not approve of, like sharing stories with journalists.

The book makes clear that Arafat and others in the Palestinian guerrilla organizations from a very early date hoped that the US government would give support to the Palestinian cause, probably as part of a so-called "two state solution." That was what they hoped to get out of the relationship. They weren't so naive as to think that their forces were going to be marching into Tel Aviv anytime soon.

Gemayel and Salame were not friends, but there are plenty of reasons that they would have done favors for one another - like showing how powerful they are. Plus, Bashir hoped to take over the leadership of the Christian population of Lebanon knowing full well that he would eventually have to strike a deal with the Palestinians. He was trying to be a maverick. It didn't turn out so well, of course.

The book is quite clear about why the US did not "preserve him" [Abu Hassan] - they did not want to admit that they had such extensive contacts with him.

How could the book be " fascinating read" if it is full of lies? I cannot stand books that lie about what I know well - I hardly even could read books with ridiculous "Russian" names, it irritates me to no end.

Excellent critical and analytical review.

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