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Gates Says Aides Failed to Tell Him About Ames

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former CIA Director Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that senior agency officials were convinced in 1992 that Aldrich H. Ames was a Russian mole but did not tell Gates of their suspicions. Ames remained in place as a spy for nearly two more years.

In an interview, Gates--who served as CIA director from 1991 until early 1993--added that those same officials did not tell the chief of the CIA’s clandestine espionage service until 1993 about their belief that Ames was the mole they had been hunting for.

“This is a group of people in 1992 who knew that Aldrich Ames was the mole, and they didn’t tell me,” Gates said. “They didn’t have enough to make a court case against Ames at that time, but they knew--they were convinced--it was Ames. And they didn’t even tell the deputy director for operations [the chief of the CIA’s clandestine service] until 1993.”

A career CIA official, Ames finally was arrested in February, 1994, after spying for the Soviets--and later the Russians--for nine years. He was sentenced last year to life in prison.

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In the CIA’s final damage assessment of the spy scandal, which was formally presented to Congress on Tuesday, the agency determined that Ames’ betrayal was far more devastating to American intelligence than had ever been reported. More than 100 agents or potential agents--Russians recruited by the CIA to spy for the United States--were betrayed by Ames. And many of them were turned into double agents by the KGB, feeding disinformation back to the CIA.

What was worse, some mid-level CIA officials knew that their agents inside Russia had been doubled--and still passed on their information to the President and other policy-makers.

Leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees, who were briefed Tuesday, said that was by far the most explosive allegation to emerge from the damage assessment. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said that the disinformation fed to the CIA influenced Pentagon decisions on the purchase of billions of dollars in military equipment. On Wednesday, Pentagon officials reportedly were reassessing some arms purchases to see if they were based on inflated or false estimates of Soviet military capabilities.

In a report that accompanied the damage assessment, CIA Inspector General Fred Hitz recommended that Gates and two other ex-CIA directors--R. James Woolsey and William H. Webster--be held accountable for their failure to detect that some agency officials knowingly were passing on disinformation from KGB double agents to the President. All three former directors wrote a scathing letter in reply, urging that Hitz should be investigated for his own failures to uncover wrongdoing. Woolsey and Webster could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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In the interview, Gates argued that Hitz had used an excessively broad definition of management accountability by trying to place the blame on the former CIA directors.

Gates stressed that he was never told that Soviet disinformation was being passed on in intelligence reports sent to policy-makers. And no one who directly reported to him knew either, he said.

Gates added that the damage assessment, which remains classified, shows that the people responsible for passing on disinformation were “four to five to six levels below the CIA director.” The CIA’s damage assessment names those believed to have been responsible for passing on disinformation, but their names or titles have not been released. For the most part, they are mid-level “reports officers” and other managers in the Soviet division of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, the agency’s clandestine arm.

Gates revealed that officials failed to tell him of their suspicions about Ames in 1992 to underscore his point that he should not be held accountable for a situation in which managers in the Directorate of Operations purposefully kept him in the dark.

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According to “Betrayal,” a book about the Ames scandal written by three New York Times reporters, the CIA’s mole-hunt team had reached the “inescapable conclusion that Ames was probably a spy” by September, 1992.

The book says that Ted Price, then-chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence center, told another official on the mole-hunt team that the agency had not briefed the FBI “in any formal” manner on its suspicions. The major books that have been published on the Ames scandal did not discuss whether Gates was informed at that time of the team’s suspicions.

Gates said that he still finds it difficult to understand why CIA officials would mislead him about the Ames case, and also that he cannot fathom why they would not disclose the fact that agents inside Russia had been doubled by the KGB.

But he argued that the insular corporate culture within the secretive Directorate of Operations frequently led officials there to hide bad news from the CIA director.

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“I think both the failure to disclose that sources had been doubled, and their failure to notify me about Ames is part and parcel of a larger problem inside the clandestine service--a failure to move controversial problems and decisions on sensitive matters up the chain of command,” Gates said.

“They didn’t want problems to go up to their bosses within the Directorate of Operations, or up to the director or deputy director of the CIA.”

Gates, who served as chief of staff to former CIA Director William J. Casey in the early 1980s, recalled one instance in which Casey gave an assignment to a division chief within the Directorate of Operations. As Gates and the division chief left Casey’s office, Gates asked if the division chief was planning on notifying his boss--the chief of the clandestine service--of the assignment. “He doesn’t need to know,” was the reply, Gates says.

Gates’ acknowledgment that he was kept in the dark represents a blow to his reputation, since he was a lifelong CIA officer who made his reputation as one of the CIA’s premier experts on Soviet intelligence.

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Yet he spent virtually his entire career as an analyst in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence. There is no love lost between Gates and the CIA’s spies inside the shadowy Directorate of Operations. Indeed, many DO officers opposed his nomination as director, and served as anonymous sources for the Senate Intelligence Committee during his confirmation hearings.

Gates currently is writing a book on his experiences in intelligence gathering during the Cold War.

He stressed Wednesday that the CIA had plenty of highly accurate sources of information about the Soviet Union--ranging from spy satellites to wiretaps--that were never tainted by double agents.


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