The Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s mishandling of the Aldrich H. Ames spy case--beginning with its long, chummy tolerance of an employee of supreme mediocrity and extending through its bumbling efforts to identify the spy in its ranks--doesn’t add a lot to what’s known about this scandal. However, it does compellingly sharpen the focus on the many blunders within the agency that allowed Ames to freely spy for Moscow for nearly nine years. Ames’ betrayals led to the deaths of at least 10 intelligence sources, compromised more than 100 intelligence operations and gave the Russians access to thousands of pages of classified U.S. documents.
The unanimous report speaks of an internal culture that all but ignored the “serious personal and professional misconduct” of its employees. It was an agency in which security was “lax and ineffective.” And it was an agency unwilling to candidly face the extent of the “catastrophic blow” Ames had dealt it.
The committee found “seriously inadequate” the response of R. James Woolsey, the director of Central Intelligence, to the Ames case. Woolsey, of course, inherited the worst espionage case in the CIA’s history and so can’t be blamed for what went before. Where he is severely faulted is in not moving more severely against some of the 23 current and former officials the CIA’s own inspector general held accountable for failing to detect what Ames was doing. Probably never in the modern history of spying has a betrayer done more that should have called attention to himself than Ames. Besides being a falling-down drunk and a philanderer, Ames ostentatiously spent much of the more than $2 million his Moscow masters paid for his services. Yet for a long time no one at the CIA seemed to care enough to act on these warning signs.
The committee’s report calls for tightening the agency’s internal security procedures. Among other things it says poor performers should be dismissed. That might seem to be basic management. One of the startling revelations of this case was the ease with which a clearly identifiable mediocrity not only stayed on the payroll but kept getting promoted. Ames was too inept to do a decent job in any of the positions he held. He was skilled enough, however, to make fools of his superiors for years on end. Can the CIA now be trusted to clean up its own internal mess? It has very little time left to try to show it can. If it fails, look for Congress to begin swinging its own mop, with a vengeance and rightly so.