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Oh, My, We Did Make a Little Bit of a Mistake : CIA chooses to fire no one and demote no one

Aldrich H. Ames got away with spying for the Soviet Union for nearly nine years because of what CIA Director R. James Woolsey describes as “a systemic failure of the CIA.” That’s a revealing choice of words.

By attributing to the entire “system” what he in elaboration called the “failure in management accountability, in judgment, in vigilance” that allowed the bumbling Aldrich to become a deadly betrayer, Woolsey effectively limits individual responsibility for the massive security breakdown that occurred. If the system as a whole failed, then individual nonfeasance was only incidental.

And so Woolsey chose to fire no one and demote no one. He did discipline five active and six retired senior officers. All that means, in the worst case, is that some of those still on the CIA’s payroll will have to forgo promotions or awards for the next few years.

That will strike most Americans as almost incomprehensibly generous. Woolsey says he was concerned that harsher punishments could have eroded morale in the CIA. Maybe. But surely there should be no less concern that Woolsey’s forgiving attitude could be taken as validating the culture of permissive laxity that let Ames carry out what the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee calls “the worst disaster in CIA history.”

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If Ames had been a highly trained, brilliantly camouflaged, fiendishly clever master spy then his ability to escape exposure for so long might be understandable. But he was none of those things. He was a--literally--falling-down drunk who openly flouted the agency’s rules and freely spent the $2 million he was paid by Moscow, a man who did everything but put up billboards and hire skywriters to call attention to his treachery.

It made no difference. “One could almost conclude,” Woolsey said, “not only that no one was watching, but that no one cared.”

For all his boozing, for all his incompetence--Ames was ranked 197th out of 200 officers at his level--he was repeatedly promoted. With promotions came access, and with access came the means for Ames to send at least 10 agents to their deaths and compromise dozens of intelligence networks.

Congress is not in a forgiving mood toward the CIA. The intelligence committees, some of whose members find increasingly vexatious the agency’s slowness in reorienting itself in the post-Cold War world, haven’t at all liked what they heard from the CIA’s inspector general about the Ames case. Some are publicly questioning whether Woolsey has what’s needed to remedy the basic problems at the agency.

High among those problems, as the Ames case made so dramatically clear, is the chummy approach to personnel matters that let even someone as notably disreputable as Ames get away with flagrant misbehavior. That problem had better be eliminated once and for all, and now.

The old-boy protectiveness of the CIA, so visible when it for so long delayed cooperating with the FBI in going after the mole in its viscera, must end. If that requires, to borrow Woolsey’s formulation, a full systemic shake-up, then so be it. However great a disaster Ames was for the CIA he was a greater one for the United States. In moving to make sure such a disaster can’t recur, it is the interests of the nation and not the agency that must be held paramount.


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