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 …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.