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No Laughing Matter

Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million

by David Wise
HarperCollins, 356 pp., $25.00

Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, an American Spy

by Tim Weiner, by David Johnston, by Neil A. Lewis
Random House, 308 pp., $25.00

Killer Spy: The Inside Story of the FBI’s Pursuit and Capture of Aldrich Ames, America’s Deadliest Spy

by Peter Maas
Warner, 243 pp., $21.95

Sellout: Aldrich Ames and the Corruption of the CIA

by James Adams
Viking, 322 pp., $23.95

The tale of Aldrich Ames, the CIA intelligence officer now serving a life sentence in federal prison for selling secrets to the Russians between 1985 and his arrest in February 1994, has been examined in four new books crammed with true names and organizational detail—which would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. From these varying accounts of Ames’s amazing success in eluding discovery by Agency counterintelligence sleuths known as “mole hunters” we may abstract eight useful axioms for understanding covert intelligence activities during the cold war.

  1. What goes around comes around.

The Central Intelligence Agency was the last of the major clandestine belligerents to experience the agony and humiliation of discovering a viper in its nest. The British, French, Germans, and Russians had each in their turn been through the political trauma of having to explain how it could have happened. The names of Kim Philby in Britain and Hans Felfe in Germany remain bywords for treachery to this day. But no shock was deeper than the one suffered by the Russians on June 13, 1985, when they learned that eleven trusted officials, nine of them members of the KGB or the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence service, had been spying for the Americans.

The shock was so great that the Russian government abandoned every rule of counterintelligence tradecraft and ordered the wholesale arrest of the newly discovered spies. At least ten would eventually be executed. By the end of the year the spy runners of the CIA in turn realized they had been struck by a disaster—the Russians appeared to be arresting every American agent. The explanation could only be compromise by some ghastly technical innovation—a new Russian code-breaking capacity, a well-placed bug or the like—or something worse still, an intelligence officer gone bad, a traitor within, a mole. In October 1986 an apologetic KGB case officer, Vladimir Mechulayev, assured his star American agent during one of their rare face-to-face meetings in Rome that he had been unable to stop the arrests, that his hands had been tied by orders from above—presumably from the Politburo and perhaps even Mikhail Gorbachev himself—but that every effort would be made to protect him by sending the CIA off on one futile chase after another. The star agent was so drunk by the end of the meeting that he forgot to return the next night as instructed for one of his many substantial cash payments—well over $2 million in all with promise of more.

Vlad,” as Aldrich Ames called his handler, was as good as his word, and Russian tactics to protect him, combined with some foot-dragging and wishful thinking by the CIA itself, no doubt gradually convinced Ames over the next eight years that God loves a sinner. But on the morning of February 21, 1994, a Monday and a holiday, Ames discovered it was not so, and the CIA was finally subjected to the common fate of cold war intelligence services—the humiliating revelation that it had been betrayed for years by a man it trusted with its most secret secrets.

  1. The guy wearing the T-shirt saying “It’s me! It’s me!” is the guy.

In the hierarchy of awful things that can happen to the public reputation of an intelligence service, the discovery of a traitor within is bad, the discovery that he has been at it for years is worse, and the worst of all, by far, is the discovery that he was the obvious and inevitable candidate for suspicion from day one. Just why Aldrich Ames left so many careless clues to his spying for the Russians remains locked within his psychic history, but it is obvious in retrospect that catching him should have been a routine exercise once the Soviet/East European (SE) Division noted the sudden disappearance of its spies in the fall of 1985.

No finger pointed at Ames before he approached the Russians in April 1985. He was a shy and bookish sort of man, the son of a former CIA official, who had shown little talent for fieldwork during a tour in Turkey in the 1970s; but he performed well later in New York, where he was assigned to keep watch on two important Soviet spies including the high UN official Arkady Shevchenko, who later defected to the United States. Ames had a drinking problem but so did a great many other CIA officers; he was getting a divorce and broke but that was not unusual either.

But Ames’s style as a spy was reckless and conspicuous from the first day, when he walked into the Soviet embassy in Washington (which was under constant surveillance by the FBI as Ames well knew) and offered to turn traitor for $50,000. Two months later he handed over a sheaf of documents identifying at least eleven Soviet agents working for the CIA and the Russians realized they had acquired a gold mine. They paid him a fortune but otherwise handled him in exemplary fashion; the books on Ames by David Wise and by Tim Weiner, David Johnston, and Neil A. Lewis of The New York Times provide a kind of Russian tradecraft primer in dead drops, signal sites, eluding surveillance and the like.

The Russians were good at what they did. It was Ames who nearly gave the game away by making numerous large cash deposits in bank accounts in his own name, paying cash for a $540,000 house and a $50,000 white Jaguar sportscar, getting falling-down drunk while on duty, telling friends lame stories about the rich relatives of his Colombian second wife. Rosario, failing to declare the influx of cash on his IRS return, failing to report his frequent meetings with Soviet officials as was required, and failing, as was required, to report his trips out of the country. Added to this, he left letters to and from the Russians on his home computer, threw into the household trash a draft of a note to his Russian handlers, charged airline travel to secret meetings to his personal credit card, and allowed the profligate Rosario to run up $10,000 monthly credit-card and phone bills, while discussing the details of meetings with Russian agents with her over the telephone.

So conspicuous was the flush of sudden wealth in the household following the return of the Ameses from a tour in Rome in 1989 that an old friend immediately connected the money, the frosty, tense impression that Ames and his wife gave to visitors, and the arrest of the agents by the Russians in 1985. But the attention of CIA mole-hunters was soon distracted and the white Jaguar remained a familiar sight in the agency parking lot for another five years.

In the history of secret intelligence this refusal to register the obvious set no precedents. Spying is high-stress work and spies both are and act like desperate men. Indeed the previously most damaging American spy in the CIA’s history, Edward Lee Howard, actually told two CIA officials in September 1984 that he had recently approached the Soviet embassy with thoughts of selling Agency secrets. The truth was he had just done so—but in Vienna, not in Washington. Nevertheless a year passed before the the CIA took Howard’s activities seriously, and then only after the Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko told his debriefers in Washington—Aldrich Ames among them—that a certain “Robert” had been selling secrets to the KGB. CIA counterintelligence officials knew immediately it was Howard to whom Yurchenko referred, and after five awful days of prayer for a miracle they finally told the FBI. Howard escaped anyway. What made catching Ames difficult was not picking him out of the crowd, but knowing what would happen next.

  1. If nobody knows, it didn’t happen.

Among the many consequences of catching Ames nine years late have been the following: the departure of CIA director R. James Woolsey like a whipped dog, the shattering of numerous other Agency careers in a business where longevity counts for a great deal, the CIA’s loss of control over counterintelligence (now transferred to the FBI), the establishment of a new commission to rethink everything about the CIA from its table of organization to its name, the spreading awareness within the CIA’s Directorate of Operations that Ames must have divulged to the Russians virtually every name, technical capacity, and trick of tradecraft they wanted to know; public doubt that the CIA can do anything right; exposure and humiliation of the Agency before a worldwide audience, including everyone who is or who might consider telling secrets to the CIA; and skepticism about the CIA’s ability to catch anything less obvious than an elephant in a telephone booth.

This is typically what happens when intelligence services catch spies in their own ranks. The trouble begins when they are caught. If they are never caught there is no trouble. All interested parties in the CIA understood this back in 1985 when operations of the Soviet/East European Division began to go bad in wholesale fashion. It is the principal reason why the mole-hunters took nine years to catch Ames.

  1. Secrecy magnifies.

Secret knowledge is a classic example of a double-edged sword—it may convey great power if timely and right, or it can precipitate a disaster if late or wrong. Hitler, to give one example, depended on his intelligence services to tell him where the Allies planned to invade Europe in 1944. If the Abwehr had known that the invasion would take place in Normandy during the first week of June, and if the report had been made a month or two in advance, the battle might have gone differently. Knowing this, Allied intelligence services did everything they could to ensure the Abwehr would not learn the plans, to confuse the Germans about the true meaning of whatever they did know, to feed the Germans false clues of alternative plans, and so on. All the activities of intelligence services may be extrapolated from this model, in which one side strives to learn the intentions of the other, while its opponent works to conceal the truth. A success or failure in these efforts may be small in absolute terms, involving a handful of pieces of paper, or one tapped telephone line or a single person with secret loyalties, while the result may be loss of a battle, a campaign, or even a war.

In an army the man upon whose actions the common fate depends will probably be a general with a public reputation earned during a long career; but in an intelligence service the person who makes all the difference at a crucial moment may be a very ordinary man—bright enough, skilled perhaps, but little more than a visitor to the world of great affairs, modestly paid, mindful of his boss, a fellow with his own ideas and a few friends and a private history of small aspirations and disappointments, just a guy, in short, not all that different from the frequently drunk, chronically broke, easily dismissed figure of Aldrich Ames.

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