A few years ago, we had a drink with a fellow on Las Olas Boulevard. He had Philadelphia connections and we knew his son. He was retired and when we asked what he had done, he was vague but intriguing. Worked around the world, had oil company connections, had been in the Middle East and other places where Americans did not tread lightly, or vice versa.
“I did a lot of things,” he said.
“Sounds like you worked for the CIA,” we said, only half joking.
He chuckled, but did not answer, which was an answer in and of itself. We probably guessed right. It is the art of the good spy that nobody knows they are spies, and they often take their secrets to their graves.
That was the case with one of the best. Robert Ames has been dead since 1983, but just recently is becoming widely known as the subject of a biography. The Good Spy was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Kai Bird. A review was in Sunday’s Miami Herald and it tells the remarkable story of a man most people had never heard of, unless you know basketball history in Philadelphia. Before he became a master of his trade, Bob Ames was a member of La Salle College’s (as it was then known) team that won the NCAA basketball championship in 1954. He is shown above in a team photo beside the legendary Tom Gola, who died earlier this year. Ames was a sub in 1954, the seventh man, and averaged only two points per game. But for many a jock, just being on that team would have been a career high.
Bob Ames' career high came on April 18, 1983 (the 208th anniversary of Paul Revere’s midnight ride), when he was one of 17 Americans killed in a suicide bombing attack at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Only then was it revealed that Bob Ames was CIA, which cleared up a mystery for his old college teammates. He had gone back to La Salle for reunions, but never revealed what he did. He said he just worked in Washington, D.C., for the president on special projects. It would be some time before they learned that their likable, quiet friend was not just any CIA guy. He was one of our most important figures in the Middle East.
That came as news to his family as well. As the book details, his six children knew he worked in government, something in the state department. But they did not know that he was our top man in the Middle East, whose reports and advice went to the president, at the time Ronald Reagan. So he wasn’t kidding when he told La Salle buddies he did stuff for the president. At La Salle, he was known as a good student, with a flair for languages. Rare at the time among Americans in the Middle East, he spoke Arabic. Even more rare, he developed a personal, and highly secret, rapport with key leaders in the Palestine Liberation Organization.
He was trying to swim against the CIA current, which was pro-Israel, right or wrong, formulated by men who could not speak the language of the other side. Bob Ames was dangerously in the middle of parties who were trying to kill each other. It caught up with him. The reviews of the new book, usually written by CIA insiders, portray a man greatly respected by his peers. They also pose a question with no clear answer: What might have happened if this insightful and highly connected man had been listened to more carefully, or lived to see his work fulfilled? Thirty years after his death, some of Bob Ames’ secrets have at last been leaked.