It was Soviet fears of a U.S. first strike in the early 1980s that apparently led to their recruitment of Aldrich Hazen Ames, a 30-year veteran of the CIA's clandestine services, nearly a decade ago. The arrest of Ames and his Columbian-born wife, Maria del Rosario Casas, in February revealed a long hemorrhage of secrets--the worst by far, if allegations are true, in the agency's 45-year history.
The aggressive buildup of U.S. nuclear arms early in President Ronald Reagan's first term, combined with Reagan's characterization of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," evidently convinced the KGB that "the threat of outbreak of a nuclear war has reached dangerous proportions." The result was a blizzard of top-secret memos from Moscow to agents in the field--to gather information on U.S. military preparations and, above all, to recruit well-placed spies.
Instructions to field officers in November, 1983, from Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, who was later KGB chief from 1988 until the failed hard-line coup attempt of 1991, ended the Soviet intelligence agency's long-fabled parsimony in rewarding agents. He urged "bolder use of material incentives." The new policy, described in a collection of documents published by the KBG defector Oleg A. Gordievsky and his British co-author, helps explain the unprecedented sums allegedly paid to Ames beginning in May, 1985--more than $2.5 million, according to FBI and CIA investigators. By way of contrast, the KGB paid only $3,000 for the super-secret technical manual describing the KH-11 spy satellite, purchased from William Kampiles, a disgruntled former CIA officer, in the 1970s.
The KH-11 was a mainstay of the CIA's system of reconnaissance satellites, used to keep track of Soviet missile deployments and other military preparations. The KGB's possession of the manual for more than a year before the CIA even discovered it was missing told the Soviets just what the Americans could see from space--and, therefore, how to hide whatever they wanted to keep secret.
Loss of the satellite manual, among other things, convinced some U.S. intelligence analysts that the Soviets had embarked on a major, long-term effort to deceive the United States about the capabilities, and especially the accuracy, of its missile force.
This, in turn, helped prompt Reagan and his national-security advisers to embark on the strategic buildup that so alarmed the KGB in the early 1980s and led to the agent-recruiting frenzy that eventually landed Ames. He has been charged with betraying more secrets of greater importance than any other spy in U.S. history--with the possible exception of Benedict Arnold, who attempted to betray the fortress at West Point to the British during the Revolutionary War. This tortured circle of action and reaction is characteristic of the eternal intelligence war that is business-as-usual in relations among sovereign states.
What made Ames worth $2.5 million, when the KH-11 manual commanded only $3,000? The answer again comes from one of the documents spirited off by the KGB defector Gordievsky. "It must always be remembered," said a report of a January, 1984, meeting of leading KGB officials in Moscow, "that the chief means of ensuring that the security of intelligence operations is protected is, and has always been, agent penetration of the other side's intelligence and counterintelligence agencies."
This was no sudden enthusiasm of the KGB but a guiding principle of Soviet intelligence efforts since the Russian Revolution in 1917. The arrest of Ames simply made the CIA the most recent in a long line of red-faced Western intelligence agencies to suffer the public humiliation of penetration in the inner-most of inner sanctums. Ames' most sensitive post was chief of the counterintelligence branch of the Central Intelligence Agency's Soviet-East European division, from 1983 through 1985. The British in the 1950s, with the Harold Kim Philby case, and the West Germans in the 1960s, with the Hans Felfe case, both experienced the same shock: discovery that a chief of counterintelligence for operations targeting the Soviet Union had been working for the other side.
What the Soviets got from Ames was a list of names--at least 10, according to an FBI affidavit--of Soviet agents working for the CIA between 1985 and 1990. Five had been assigned to the Soviet Embassy or consular offices in the United States, where they had been recruited by the FBI--a fact that helps explain the current Washington rumor about smoldering resentment between the FBI and the CIA. One, code-named "Prologue," was himself a counterintelligence officer for the KGB's Second Chief Directorate, allegedly betrayed by Ames in December, 1990. Another, code-named "Motorboat," was an officer of an East European security service said to have been betrayed by Ames in 1989.
Motorboat may have played a more central role in the Ames case than as yet confirmed by officials. According to news accounts, soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, 1989, the CIA obtained a roster of intelligence agents run against the West by the Stasi, the East German intelligence agency. Analysis of the roster revealed a disturbing fact: All the agents recruited among Stasi officers by the CIA over the years were, in fact, double agents--working for the Stasi.
This fact, combined with the immediate disappearance of Motorboat, who appears to have been the CIA source for the roster, was a classic example of what counterintelligence analysts call "interference"--evidence the other side knows things it is not supposed to know. In any event, the Stasi case prompted a combined FBI-CIA investigation that finally zeroed in on Ames in the spring of 1993, and led to his arrest in February because authorities found reason to fear that he and his wife were planning to flee.
At the heart of the Ames case are the outlines of a compelling human drama. Ames' father, a former history professor and an alcoholic who often disappeared on binges, also worked for the CIA. Like his son, he left little impression behind him. Carleton Ames, a onetime case officer in Burma, also worked in counterintelligence--as a historian of Soviet intelligence for the CIA's central counterintelligence staff run by James J. Angleton. Angleton was a legend (depending on whom you ask) for keeping Soviet penetrations out of the agency during his watch as Central Intelligence chief (1954-1974), or for his crazy suspicions that the Soviets were manipulating Western intelligence operations worldwide with the help of a mole (never found) in the CIA.
Aldrich Ames is certainly not the mole Angleton sought, with sometimes disastrous result, for so many years. It is also unlikely (but not 100% impossible) that Carleton Ames' brief stint on the CI staff would have given him access to the information Angleton was sure was leaking to the KGB.
Are you finding this difficult to follow? Imagine the chore facing security analysts who must now re-examine the loyalty of every CIA official who ever knew Ames or sent him a memo over a nine-year period. Meanwhile, counterintelligence analysts must painstakingly parse old cases to determine if things really happened the way we once thought they did. One additional case may suggest the dimensions of this task.
In the summer of 1985, the KGB officer Vitaly A. Yurchenko defected to the United States. The CIA was so thrilled with his information that it even arranged a meeting for Yurchenko with William J. Casey, Reagan's first director of the CIA. Among the nuggets of pure gold provided by Yurchenko were the names of two KGB agents in the United States: Ronald W. Pelton, working for the code-breakers at the National Security Agency, and Edward Lee Howard, a former CIA officer who soon bolted for the Soviet Union. Howard was a great discovery; it explained the disappearance of several Soviet agents working for the United States.
But then Yurchenko changed his mind, walked out of a Georgetown restaurant, where he was dining with a CIA handler, and redefected to the Soviet Embassy. Yurchenko said he'd been drugged and kidnaped; he soon returned to Moscow with a Russian embassy officer, Valery Martynov. The CIA said it had been a case of two genuine defections, and Yurchenko's "pure gold," as it was called at the time, was genuine. Now we learn that: a) Martynov was a spy for the Americans, recruited by the FBI, and that he was never seen again; and b) one of Yurchenko's debriefers at CIA headquarters was the CI branch chief, Ames.
The real significance of the Yurchenko case is only one of many mysteries raised by the Ames affair. Another is the meaning, if any, of Ames' visit to the former Soviet republic of Georgia last spring, allegedly to investigate the international narcotics traffic. Soon after, a high-ranking CIA official was murdered along a Georgia road.
Outsiders sometimes wonder, understandably, if the circles within circles of counterintelligence are worth the time and trouble of grown men--especially now, after the end of the Cold War. The answer, taken as gospel by intelligence officers, is that an intelligence service is more danger than help if it is not known to be secure; and that the security of an intelligence service can never be protected by guards, fences and locks. That can be established only by the close embrace of an opposing service--ideally by placing one of your men at the heart of the enemy effort to do the same to yourself. The sad case of Prologue proves the Americans can do this. Now the Ames case suggests the Russians do it better.*