David Ignatius, the best-selling author of Body of Lies and The Increment, among others, and prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, has been covering the Middle East and the CIA for more than twenty-five years. He lives in Washington, DC.
David Ignatius on Becoming a Novelist
Fact and fiction converged for me in a story that changed my life — and turned me into a novelist. That was a front-page story I wrote for the Wall Street in February 1983 revealing that the CIA had recruited Yasser Arafat’s chief of intelligence as an American asset, and had run him off and on until he was assassinated by the Israeli Mossad in 1979.
I worked on the story for more than two years: I began my assignment as the Journal’s Middle East Correspondent in 1980 with one piece of information that someone had let slip in a conversation that summer in Washington, as I was preparing to leave: My informant said that the previous year the Israelis had assassinated a person, whom this man called “our man in the PLO.” After dropping this astonishing tidbit, he wouldn’t say more, but after a little research I realized that he must be referring to a key PLO operative who’d been killed in 1979, named Ali Hassan Salameh, alias Abu Hassan, who was Arafat’s chief of intelligence. To the Israelis he was the “Red Prince,” a member of “Black September” and one of the architects of the Munich hostage-taking that led to the slaughter of Israeli athletes. This was a story that seemed to have everything — but first I had to find out if it was true.
In Beirut, which was my most frequent address in those days, I sought out people I thought might be able to shed light on this extraordinary tip. The Lebanese civil war was still going on, and I spent as many afternoons as I could in the company of one Palestinian who I was certain must know the story. He pointed me toward a Lebanese man who knew all the details, and I eventually tracked him down. Finally had enough material to publish a front-page story. It opened with the scene in which President Carter is informed by his CIA chief, Stansfield Turner, about the assassination of this man. The story quoted several former U.S. officials, on the record, who confirmed Salameh’s assistance to United States and the lives that had been saved by this secret relationship with Arafat’s chief of intelligence. I knew at the time that the CIA officer who had run this operation was named Robert Ames. I did not identify him in the story because of the risk that he might be killed if his identity was disclosed.
Tragedy turned this story very dark: On April 18, 1983, a terrorist truck bomb destroyed the American Embassy in Beirut. On a freak chance, Robert Ames happened to be visiting the embassy that day on a trip from Washington, where he was now serving as National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East. Ames was killed in the bombing, along with every other member of the CIA station who was in Beirut that day.
I was inside the embassy on the day of the bombing. I am interviewing a military attache. I left at about 12:30. I go back to my hotel. Just after 1:00 pm the car bomb exploded. The bomb blast was the loudest I had ever heard in Beirut. I ran back down the hill from my hotel to the embassy site. It was already ringed with Marines. Late that day, one of my Lebanese sources who had been planning to have dinner that night with Ames said that he was missing. The next day, the State Department confirmed that he was dead.
In the aftermath of Ames’s death, the Arabs who had been working with him and his colleagues, who had deep bonds of attachment with them, needed to grieve. I was the only American left in town who really knew the story, because I’d been working on it for two years. They knew I knew it. And so they sought me out and began to tell me details about intelligence operations — the wiring diagram details that it would be impossible to publish.
That’s when I became a novelist. It was obvious that the only way I could share this world of fact was through fiction. Other, the story was impossible to write: It was too raw, and at that time genuinely dangerous. I wrote many drafts, and the novel was eventually published by W. W. Norton in 1987 as Agents of Innocence.
When I began serious work on the novel I put a picture on my desk of Robert Ames, this extraordinary case officer who died in the embassy. I had cut it out from the obituary that ran in The Washington Post. and put it in a frame. But after a few weeks, I put the picture in my desk. I realized that what makes a novel seem real, paradoxically, is its departure from actual life: The way it’s re-imagined in the mind of the writer gives it a reality and power that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Otherwise, you’d just be reading a 120,000-word newspaper story.
I’d never written a novel before, and wasn’t sure how to do it technically — how to tell the story, move the characters around, divide up the slices of time. On the advice of a friend who was both a novelist and journalist, I opened each chapter with a dateline, as in a newspaper story, specifying when and where that scene took place. That helped with composition.
Although that book was sold as a novel, CIA officials and PLO leaders knew it was a real story. On the CIA’s web site for many years, the book was listed among the recommended books about operations, with a note that said, “Though a novel, senior officers say this book is not fiction.” I am told that at the agency’s training facility near Williamsburg, known as “The Farm,” the book is often recommended to young recruits. Often when traveling abroad in recent years, I have been approached by agency officers who said that when they wanted to explain to a parent or spouse what the CIA really does overseas, they gave them a copy of Agents of Innocence.
I wrote several more newspaper articles during the late 1980s about the secret CIA relationship with the leading terrorist organization of the day. And after the 9/11 attacks, when everyone began screaming for intelligence from inside Al Qaeda, I wrote a column (“Lessons from the Middle East on Penetrating Terror Networks“, Sept. 17, 2001) for the New York Times explaining how the CIA-PLO operation had worked.