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For Ames, a Wife and a Crossroads in Mexico City

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To a man of broad intellect who is also the son of an intelligence officer, the world of espionage offered a home that was at once familiar and challenging.

But after two decades in increasingly sensitive posts, Aldrich H. Ames faced a personal and professional crisis in the early 1980s as a CIA operative in Mexico City, where his career seemed to stall and his marriage collapsed.

A man both witty and meek, sometimes sociable and at other times withdrawn, Ames began to realize that he was not destined for a senior management job or substantial salary increases. He then met and married Maria del Rosario Casas Ames, a low-level Colombian diplomat recruited to be a paid agent for the CIA--and also, according to some who knew the couple, a strong-minded woman of expensive tastes.

After a tour in Rome, where Ames’ job involved trying to bribe Soviet diplomats into spying for the United States, the Ameses returned to Washington in 1989 and embarked on a new life--with a spending spree that was remarkable not only for its size but for the fact that no one at the CIA appeared to notice it.

The couple paid $540,000 cash for a home in Arlington, Va., poured $99,000 into home improvements, bought two condominiums and a farm in Colombia, put $25,000 cash down on a new Jaguar Sovereign sedan, ran up nearly $5,000 a month in credit card bills and purchased more than $165,000 in stock and securities.

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The FBI says all this money came from Moscow in return for some of the most sensitive U.S. intelligence secrets, including the names of American agents working in the Soviet Union. Law enforcement authorities say Ames turned against his country in 1985 and took more than $1.5 million from the Soviets and, later, the Russians.

Through their attorneys, the Ameses steadfastly deny these accusations, and they may be resolved only through a court case.

But the detailed presentation of them in court papers by investigators who eavesdropped on the couple and tailed them for more than a year has stirred urgent questions throughout the intelligence community and official Washington.

Why would a lifelong CIA official sell out his country for what former agency Director William E. Colby called “a few shekels of silver?” How could such a person on the front lines of the Cold War rationalize treason?

Those who know Ames and those who have studied such cases cite a combination of possible factors: greed and a shattered ego.

CIA associates describe Ames as extremely bright and capable, despite apparent blunders that led to his arrest. Yet in Mexico City, his career was not advancing while those who were his junior were moving up to bigger titles and larger salaries. Those who knew him then speculate that he could have felt stymied in his career by lesser minds who were better bureaucratic game-players.

“Rick was in crisis, and everybody seemed to know it,” said one American who worked with him in Mexico City. “He felt pushed from one side and pulled from another.”

A CIA psychologist said that Ames could have turned against his agency, and his country, out of the frustrated ambition that has driven many others to treason.

“In looking at a number of major traitors in history, it was frequently a case that there had been a major career setback, a sense of having been betrayed by their own government, which did not recognize their own ability,” he said. “The person then went on to rationalize the act quite consciously as vengeance or revenge.”

The psychologist, who has profiled many of the prominent spies of recent decades, said that they commonly suffered professional and personal crises simultaneously and decided to take action to regain a sense of self-worth. He cited the Walkers, an American family that sold top-secret U.S. military codes to the Soviets in the 1980s, and the Soviet turncoat Oleg Penkovsky, who spied for the United States after having been denied a promotion in the Soviet intelligence service.

“On the surface, these cases look like simple venality,” the psychologist said. “But in the heads of these individuals is the satisfaction of being a little man putting something over on the system. These are people with dreams of glory trying to restore a sense of efficacy and personal importance.”

Those who know him describe Ames as a man with an unexpected mix of qualities. His neighbors knew him as someone who was always able to fill in the answer to the crossword puzzle that stumped them.

One of his Arlington neighbors, William Rhoads, a retired foreign service officer, suspected that Ames might work for a spy agency because his manner seemed too humble for a foreign service officer. “He just didn’t have the pomposity you see so often.”

A doting father, Ames would brave an ice storm to buy a toy for his 5-year-old son, Paul. Although his friends in Arlington knew him only casually, he also had a convivial side: Friends from government service said that he could party for many hours and liked to have a few drinks.

If Ames had strong political views, he didn’t share them widely. Although he contributed $5,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 1991 and 1992, his Arlington neighbors and some Americans who knew him here and abroad said that they knew nothing about his politics. If he harbored any resentments toward the U.S. government, he never voiced them.

“He wasn’t like some unhappy postal employee, ready to blow up,” said an American who knew him in Mexico. “He didn’t whine, he didn’t complain, he didn’t cry about how they were treating him.”

But for all his broad knowledge, his superiors seemed to find something lacking in his job performance. After 32 years in the CIA, Ames at the time of his arrest was earning about $70,000 a year and had a service grade so low that it surprised some former colleagues when they learned of it in news accounts this week.

The portrait of Ames in the FBI’s accusatory affidavit also indicated a feckless side, surprising in a man who held the pivotal job of head of Soviet counterintelligence in the mid-1980s. The FBI papers suggest that Ames risked capture by leaving incriminating documents at his CIA office and his home, showed off his wealth in a way that was likely to attract attention and couldn’t even message his Russian contacts without numerous misspellings.

Even his purported allies in Russia were scornful of his allegedly reckless and free-spending ways. “Of course, we should not recruit such idiots who do not know how to live,” Mikhail N. Portoranin, an adviser to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, said scornfully this week.

Relatively little is known of Ames’ earliest years except that he and his two sisters lived the life of CIA “brats"--trailing their father, Carleton, to several agency postings overseas before settling in the Virginia suburbs of Washington in 1951, when the younger Ames was 10. Ames’ mother, Rachel Aldrich Ames, taught in the Fairfax County public schools until retiring in 1969 and moving to North Carolina.

Ames’ father died in retirement in 1972. His mother collapsed and died at Ames’ house in Falls Church, Va., in 1986 while visiting her son.

The 1959 McLean High School yearbook pictures a nerdy, bespectacled “Ricky” Ames hamming it up with Polly Morris as the senior class’s “wittiest” students. He was active in the thespian society, served on the yearbook staff, sang in the a cappella choir and sat on the student council cabinet. He was a National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist.

Senior class president Corbin Thompson, now a pipe fitter in semi-rural Nokesville, Va., said that he remembers Ames as an exceptional student and “fun to be around.”

He said he had no idea that Ames had chosen intelligence as a career. “I thought he’d go into theatrics or be an English teacher or something.”

Thompson said he wasn’t aware until a reporter called him Friday that the Aldrich H. Ames arrested this week as a suspected spy was the Ricky Ames he’d watched in school plays. “You mean that’s the same guy? I had no idea.”

Although the yearbook indicates that Ames intended to attend Dartmouth College in the fall of 1959, the school has no record of his enrolling there. The next three years are unaccounted for in official accounts, perhaps reflecting Ames’ military service or initial CIA training.

He joined the agency on June 17, 1962, then spent tours in Washington, Turkey and New York before landing in Mexico City between 1981 and 1983. That tour was a prestigious location for someone in his work, because big Russian and Cuban embassies had long made the city a seat of espionage activity in Latin America.

He developed a close-knit group of friends among the 500 or so Americans who worked at the embassy, and his friends knew him to be in pain. His peers in the service were moving ahead, but Ames was struggling to win similar respect from his bosses.

“If you don’t move ahead, you’d be ‘selected out,’ as they put it,” one friend said. “That’s what everybody worried about.”

And his first marriage was coming unraveled, leaving Ames deeply troubled behind a usually cheerful demeanor, friends said. The divorce in August, 1985, gave Ames’ first wife the couple’s home and alimony, according to one former CIA official.

It was at one of the embassy’s many diplomatic cocktail soirees in the Mexican capital that Ames met the young, raven-haired Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy, a cultural attache in the Colombian Embassy and the daughter of a prominent Colombian politician and businessman.

She was born on Dec. 19, 1952, in Bogota and entered the humanities college of the prestigious University of the Andes in 1969. She studied philosophy and arts, concentrating on ancient Greece, and rubbed elbows with people who became Colombia’s political and social elite, including Ana Milena Munoz, now the wife of President Cesar Gaviria.

Despite his struggles with his career, Ames returned to Washington and was inexplicably promoted to the prestigious post of head of Soviet counterintelligence. He and his wife then spent three years in Rome, where he was charged with “turning” Soviet Embassy personnel, before returning to Washington in the late summer of 1989.

In January, 1991, Ames and his wife began depositing large amounts of cash in checking, savings and brokerage accounts in the Washington area, according to the FBI affidavit. The affidavit also says the couple began a pattern of unauthorized contacts with Russian officials in which they used a northwest Washington mailbox to signal his Russian handlers, and a site he called “the pipe” for receiving bundles of cash.

The Ames’ nanny told reporters this week of the furtive life she had witnessed at the Ames’ three-story house. She told of how she was barred from entering certain parts of the house and ordered to take the couple’s son away from the house for periods of many hours.

By early 1993, the couple was under constant surveillance from TV cameras, FBI tails and even electronic monitors on their home telephone and computer, where FBI documents say they kept detailed records of their espionage business.

As the months wore on, according to the FBI documents, the couple’s anxiety level apparently rose.

FBI agents say they listened in on a call last October in which a panicked Rosario Ames grilled her husband about a signal he was supposed to leave on a mailbox to indicate to his Russian masters that he was prepared to meet a Russian agent in Bogota to exchange information.

According to a transcript of the intercepted conversation, Mrs. Ames asked, “Why didn’t you do it today, for God’s sakes?” Her husband replied, “I should have, except it was raining like crazy.”

Then they reportedly bickered about when he was supposed to lay down the signal to the Russians, with Ames reassuring her that he still had time to pass the message.

“Well, honey,” Mrs. Ames said, “I hope you didn’t screw up.”

Times staff writers Elizabeth Shogren, Ray Delgado, Robin Wright, Doyle McManus and Ronald J. Ostrow in Washington, special correspondent Steven Ambrus in Bogota and researcher Audrey Britton in New York contributed to this story.


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