Was Ames Alone?

March 8, 1994

by Edward Jay Epstein

Aldrich Ames arrest as an alleged Soviet mole in the CIA raises serious question about both the CIA's past and future as an espionage services. "Think of an espionage service as a highly specialized employment service," explained James Jesus Angleton, the former chief of counterintelligence. Such recruiters aim to find foreign government officials with legitimate access to secret documents. Up to a point, like more conventional corporate headhunters, they consults biographical files to find a candidate to fill an opening, observe his work (or even interview him) and make him an offer to change his loyalties that will have difficulty refusing. But unlike their counterparts in the private sector, these recruiters do not ask the candidates to give up their old jobs. Instead, they insist he maintain two positions simultaneously: one for his own government and one for his new and secret employer. If the recruit does not have access to needed material, his secret employer takes on the task of managing his career by providing him with "successes" in the form of cases and information, so he rises to where he is useful. As the CIA's Soviet bloc division noted in 1973 about its own capabilities at career-managing a potential mole recruited at a foreign embassy: "we are prepared to guide and assist him in his career, running him in place until he develops the access we need".

Yet while CIA officials have the utmost confidence in their ability to successfully mount such grand plots against Russia, many of these same officials are unable to accept that the KGB has a similar capacity for conspiracy. (Former CIA Director Colby admitted, for instance "I thought the function of the agency was to penetrate the Kremlin not protect itself against the KGB." ) These officials placed great faith in the CIA's lie detector tests and other routine security procedures and derided those who had less faith in these defenses-- notably Angleton and his counterintelligence staff-- as "paranoid," indulging in "sick think" or otherwise out of touch with reality. The Ames case demonstrates that such faith was misplaced.

The KGB clearly had the ability to compromise, recruit, career-manage, service and utilize the intelligence product of Ames for an extensive period of time. According to the FBI affidavits, Ames had been in illicit liaison with the Soviet intelligence service since at least 1984-- and, according to a former CIA counterintelligence executive, he may have been recruited much earlier. Moreover, he had been, while a Soviet mole, head of the CIA's Soviet counterintelligence unit. From this vantage point Ames could vet the secret information coming in to the CIA from its own spies in Russia and tell the KGB what the CIA was learning.

The implications of this case are far reaching. To begin with, it casts new light on the intellectual provenance of the information supplied to the media by retired KGB officers. For example, Oleg Kalugin, who served as a Major General in the KGB up until 1987, was certainly in a position to know of the KGB's success in penetrating the CIA. Yet, he stated categorically in 1992 "No responsible politician or government employee was ever recruited by the Soviets in Europe or America in the last 20 years." Kalugin added that the KGB had so little hard currency at its disposal that, to pay operating expenses abroad, it had to open up "its archives to the foreign media" and sell documents. While this picture of KGB ineptitude and poverty may have come as welcome news inside the CIA, it hardly squared with the millions the KGB was then paying to Ames to get leverage over CIA counterintelligence.

More important, Ames' work for the KGB calls into serious question the validity of the secret intelligence derived from Russia in the mid and late 1980s. Ames is said to have identified to the KGB the 10 CIA agents in the Soviet Union which were supplying the CIA with data. Yet, just as a Mafia suspect who found out some of his phones were tapped by police could use them to mislead the police, the KGB, following the usual practice in counterintelligence, would not immediately arrest the 10 sources Ames told them about but use them to pass misleading information to the CIA. If it controlled all the CIA's sources through Ames, it could assure that each reports persuasively dove-tailed with the others. This might explain why the CIA was egregiously wrong in assessing various Soviet capabilities in the mid 1980s.

The Ames revelation also helps to understand some pivotal KGB activities of the 1980s. Consider, for example, the short-lived visit of Vitaliy Yurchenko to Washington in August 1985. He claimed to be a KGB defector, and Ames, as the relevant CIA counterintelligence officer, was assigned to the debriefing team. Yurchenko identified himself as the deputy chief of the KGB unit specifically responsible for organizing and supervising its espionage against the United States, which conveniently put him in a perfect position to identify KGB recruits in the CIA. Thus the head of the debriefing team immediately asked him whether or not there were any KGB moles presently working in the CIA and offered him, as is the practice, a substantial bonus if he provide any information that could help locate such a mole. Since Ames was already a mole, Yurchenko, if he were a genuine defector, had a truly golden opportunity. But instead of naming Ames, he insisted falsely (like Kalugin later did) that the KGB had not succeeded in making a single recruit of any CIA officer on active duty. (On the contrary, he diverted attention away from Ames by identifying a former employee of the CIA, Edward Lee Howard who had contacted the Soviet Embassy, as both the FBI and CIA had already determined from its routine surveillance.) After 90 days as a temporary defector-- during which period, he helped Ames, who was checking out his story, expand his access into such compartments as the NSA' top secret anti-submarine detection devices in the Pacific-- Yurchenko redefected back to Moscow.

Finally, the most serious ramification of the Ames case is the indication that Ames might not have been alone. As one top former CIA counterintelligence officer put it, "moles, like mice, are not often found as singletons". Ames, who had access to counterintelligence files, would be in a position to provide the KGB with a roster of candidates. The ex-CIA officer recalled that in similar mole operations into the intelligence services of West Germany, England and France, the KGB had acted to widen the original penetration by having the initial recruit spot, assess and find vulnerabilies of others in the service for its head-hunters. It is assumed that Ames did the same. Moreover, the fact that Ames managed to rise to be head of the CIA's Soviet counterintelligence unit despite his reportedly lackluster performance and, at the same time, avoid all the CIA's security defenses, suggests that he might have had inside "career management" help. This possibility is reinforced by the chronology of the payments Ames received from the KGB, as detailed in the FBI affidavits. These payments extended six years after he had been transferred out of the counterintelligence unit to Rome, the UN in New York and the CIA's boon dock anti- narcotics unit, where his "need to know" access would be greatly curtailed. In the words of the ex-CIA counterintelligence officer: "the KGB does not pay bonuses of such magnitude on spec." So it appears Ames was able to deliver secrets on the Soviet's shopping list from areas in which he did not have access. If so, he must have relied on others. For the last two decades, the CIA hoped it could evade this nightmare of moles by such mechanistic means as lie-detect examinations. Now, that the KGB succeeded in its conspiratorial enterprise, the CIA again has to confront the issue of of protecting itself.

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