How Ames Fooled The Cia

ALDRICH AMES WASN'T EVEN A good spy. The CIA's now infamous mole betrayed his country and sold out at least 11 agents to the KGB, four of whom were executed. Yet throughout his 31 years as a CIA case officer-the last nine of them as a KGB mole-he was extraordinarily inept. He drank his lunch, flaunted his ill-gotten wealth, used safe houses for illicit sex and had difficulty passing a be-detector test.

So why did it take the CIA so long to catch him? The uncomfortable answer is that Ames was at least in part a product of a culture where loyalties are fickle and espionage can become a great game. If Ames was a deep cynic, so were the men who tried-with exceeding caution at first-to catch him. Worn and jaded by the cold war, yet befuddled without it, the CIA was vulnerable to a mole in the late 1980s. In the turf wars of Washington, some CIA diehards could become more consumed with suspicion about the FBI than with the agency's role collecting intelligence abroad. Ames, who was sentenced last week to life imprisonment for espionage and tax fraud, was protected by an old-boy clique that sometimes valued secrecy over common sense. His story, told here from court documents and interviews with intelligence officials on both sides of the cold war, is as much about the CIA's lost mission as it is about a dangerous loser.

The KGB has always been in the market for moles, or "deep-penetration agents," as they are more properly known. It stepped up its recruiting efforts in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" rhetoric, combined with the Kremlin's own paranoia, made the Soviet Union fear a first strike. The KGB wanted a network of moles to serve as an early-warning system.

The KGB officer who recruited Ames in 1985 was awarded the Order of the Red Banner, the Soviet Union's second highest military award, but he didn't have to work very hard for the honor. Ames came to him at a Washington cocktail party. Saddled with debt after a messy divorce, Ames offered to sell the names of some agents to the Soviets for $50,000. Since he suspected the agents were "dangles"-already secretly working for the Soviets as double agents-Ames didn't think that he was betraying much. A month later, on another visit to the Russian Embassy, he was handed an envelope with $9,000 in cash. Perhaps overcome by the lure of easy money, he proceeded to offer the Soviets everything he knew.

That was a great deal-so much that the KGB rewarded Ames with a total of $2.5 million and the promise of a retirement dacha outside Moscow. At the time of his recruitment, Ames was chief of counterintelligence for the Soviet/East European division, privy to most of the CIA's secret operations in the Soviet Union. The job sounds important, but actually it was a dumping ground. Under the legendary mole-hunter James Jesus Angleton, the counterintelligence staff had been an empire within the CIA. But in the 1960s and '70s, Angleton had ruined dozens of careers without ever catching any moles. By the 1980s, the pendulum had swung too far the other way. The agency was afraid of lawsuits and controversy. Mole hunting was in deep disfavor, relegated to mediocrities like Ames.

Despite a series of betrayals, it took the agency five years to realize that it had a mole in its midst. One after another, the CIA's best Russian agents were disappearing. A Soviet intelligence officer code-named GT/BLIZZARD and a GRU (military intelligence) lieutenant colonel code-named GT/MILLION missed prearranged meetings with their CIA handlers. GT/TICKLE, a KGB officer feeding British intelligence, and GT/ACCORD, a GRU official who had provided valuable military secrets for 20 years, also vanished. One of the CIA's most prized assets, a KGB official named GT/COWL, was arrested and executed. COWL had tipped off the CIA that the KGB was sprinkling "spy dust" chemicals on unsuspecting U.S. officials in order to track their contacts in Moscow (CIA officials weren't sure that spy dust really existed, but they informed President Reagan, who angrily warned Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev to stop such devious tricks).

At first, the CIA couldn't rule out bad luck or good detective work by the KGB, or some other cause, like a computer hacker who had penetrated the agency's secrets. But by 1991, a senior CIA counterintelligence official had to concede that the CIA had been betrayed by one of its own. At a secret meeting with the FBI, the official admitted, "We've got blood on our hands."

The admission was especially painful because it meant cooperating with the FBI, which is charged with catching spies in the United States. One former senior CIA official compared "opening it all up to the FBI so they know everything you know" to an unnatural sex act. The CIA regarded some of the FBI field agents as blunderers who would spill the agency's secrets. They pointed to the case of Felix Bloch, the State Department official who was prematurely fingered by the FBI as trafficking with a KGB agent in 1989 but never prosecuted.

At the agency, senior officials preferred to rely on polygraphs-lie detectors-as a kind of Maginot line against KGB penetration. After a series of spy scandals in 1985, the CIA's security men were ordered to be especially aggressive about "fluttering" agency officials. The tests quickly became something of a joke. A properly trained spy may get away with lying by using special tranquilizers or biofeedback techniques, even by biting his tongue and curling his toes. East German and Cuban double agents routinely beat the polygraph. Yet many CIA officials, pressed by inexperienced testers, were flunking by the mid-'80s. They had particular difficulty with questions on homosexuality, apparently because any stray guilt about long-ago homosexual fantasies was enough to "crank" the lie-detector machine. CIA supervisors began seeing the test as a hassle to get through. Case officers were allowed to retake the tests until they had calmed down enough to pass.

Ames was one who slipped through. He flunked a question about his personal finances in 1986 and one about whether he had ever worked for the Soviet Union in 1991. In both cases, he was given another chance at the question, the second time after resting up for four days. The FBI was furious when Ames's suspect results on the 1991 test were not turned over by the CIA until 1993.

Ames was now finally a serious target of the investigation. He had been moved out of the Soviet division into counternarcotics in a routine job transfer, but in the cozy world of the CIA, he was still able to get access to information about CIA operations against Russia, despite rules requiring sensitive information to be strictly "Compartmentalized." As he smoked cigarettes with his old chums from the Soviet division near a monument in the central courtyard of the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Va., he would trade gossip and information.

Although he drove a red Jaguar and bought a half-million-dollar house on a salary that never exceeded $67,000, Ames led colleagues to believe he had inherited money from his father-in-law. His downfall came when he began recklessly traveling abroad without agency authorization. In late 1992 he had been spotted in Caracas, where he had gone to meet his Russian handlers. The FBI began closing in, bugging his phone and sifting through his garbage. Sloppy at "tradecraft," Ames left incriminating trash like typewriter ribbons from which FBI analysts could piece together messages to the KGB.

Now the CIA and KGB must try to compose a larger picture of the damage caused by Ames's betrayals. To make sure Ames cooperates, the government is using Ames's 5-year-old son as leverage. The court delayed sentencing of Ames's wife, Rosario, who pleaded guilty to tax fraud, and to aiding her husband's espionage. If Ames talks, Rosario could be released in little more than four years. If not, she may have to wait years longer to see her son, whom she described to NEWSWEEK as "the one who holds me together."

Ames will no doubt talk; the question is whether he will tell the truth. The FBI and CIA are especially interested in knowing if Ames can point them to any other moles. Naming names is a time-honored way of settling scores, and Ames could cause havoc in the agency by leading investigators down false trails to his enemies.

More moles-real ones-are likely to be revealed in the months ahead. Many of the leads will come from the files of the now-defunct East German security apparatus, the Stasi, which worked closely with the KGB to recruit moles in the '80s. (The CIA obtained some Stasi files by bribing a Soviet military-intelligence official in charge of transporting the documents from Berlin to Moscow.) A former senior Stasi official with close ties to Russian intelligence told NEWSWEEK that, though Ames did great damage to the West, he is not the worst mole. This source says there is an even more dangerous penetration agent still active in the U.S. intelligence community. Old CIA hands can only pray he works for some other agency, like the Defense Department, or, better yet, the FBI.