By David Wise
HarperCollins 356pp $25
By Tim Weiner, David
Johnston, and Neil A. Lewis
Random House 308pp $25
By James Adams
Viking 322pp $23.95
The saga of CIA turncoat Aldrich H. Ames would be hilarious were it not for its deadly consequences. Ames all but wore a Russian fur hat to the office. He was a problem drinker who, among other glaring lapses, failed to report on meetings with KGB agents he was supposedly trying to recruit and abruptly started buying Jaguar autos and a half-million-dollar house, for which he paid cash. Yet his CIA bosses shrugged off the warning signals for years, giving him jobs that provided access to their most precious secrets: the files on Soviet agents.
Consequently, Ames became perhaps the most destructive spy of the cold war. The information he gave the Soviets led to the virtual annihilation of the agency's Soviet network. At least 10 CIA agents were executed. Others wound up in prison camps or had to flee to the West. Ames also compromised dozens of other operations, including vital communications intercepts.
But what the Ames affair revealed about the agency is even more disturbing. If the CIA was ever a well-honed instrument of U.S. foreign policy, it isn't anymore. Rather, it seems to be a boozy old-boys' club overly concerned with protecting perks and deflecting scrutiny. It is, as David Wise writes in Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million, "a tired bureaucracy, living in the past, wearing blinders, and deeply flawed."
This book is one of three that tell the same incredible story of a marginal CIA man who became perhaps the greatest spy of all. Nightmover, whose author has written several previous books on intelligence, is probably the most thorough treatment. Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, an American Spy is a fast-paced, vivid account of the debacle by three New York Times Washington correspondents, Tim Weiner, David Johnston, and Neil A. Lewis. And Sellout: Aldrich Ames and the Corruption of the CIA by James Adams, the Washington bureau chief of The London Sunday Times, is notable for its rich biographical material on Ames and his father, Carleton, a hard-drinking Asia hand who had a forgettable CIA career. Adams also presents the most detailed recommendations on reforming the CIA. But all of these books are far more concerned with describing the agency's flaws, as revealed in an appalling case, than with fixing them.
The CIA's first mistake came in the 1960s, when, largely as a result of the elder Ames's connections, it hired the unpromising Rick Ames. Later, an evaluator declared that the fledgling case officer did not have the moxie to recruit agents in the field and recommended that Ames be kept at headquarters. From early on, there were signs of trouble. Ames got blind drunk at parties, cheated on his wife, a fellow agent, and was careless enough to leave a briefcase full of secret documents on the New York subway. None of this prevented Ames from receiving a cushy posting in Mexico in 1981. There, the CIA allowed him to try to recruit a risky and unlikely target, a crack KGB counterintelligence officer named Igor I. Shurygin. Over the next two years, the two men engaged in a series of marathon drinking bouts at Mexico City restaurants with their employers' consent. In the end, it was Shurygin who softened up Ames for recruitment.
Wise figures the KGB man played on Ames's sense that "his talents had not been adequately recognized by the agency." But Ames's main motivation was money. While in Mexico, he broke agency rules by becoming romantically involved with an agency source, a Colombian cultural attache named Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy, whom he eventually married. Back in Washington in 1985, he became desperate for cash--the result of a costly divorce settlement with his first wife and Rosario's expensive habits. So he walked into the Soviet Embassy, handed over secret documents, and asked for $50,000. In time, Rosario Ames, who ultimately drew a jail sentence of five years, became aware of his spying and took a keen interest in its rewards.
Once he took money, Ames later told the Senate Intelligence Committee, "I had crossed a line. I could never step back." And he didn't. His next move was to eliminate the CIA's Soviet agents who could have fingered him. He stuffed a huge batch of documents into shopping bags and carried them out of the agency's Langley (Va.) headquarters. He knew no one would stop him. These proved to be the biggest haul for the KGB ever. Included were the identities of virtually all Soviet agents working for the CIA and the FBI. Ames handed them over to a KGB contact in a Georgetown restaurant.
During the next few years, Ames--who had become counterintelligence chief of the agency's Soviet division--delivered as many as a thousand documents a year, more than the KGB could process. In return, he received payments totaling nearly $3 million, usually in fat wads of cash. Nor did the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 disturb the relationship. Ames's pay actually increased under the KGB's Russian successor, the SVR.
Despite having lost so much, the CIA did not scramble to find the source of the leaks. It took a full year after agents began vanishing to assemble an investigatory task force. The agency didn't start seriously examining Ames's bank accounts until 1992, three years after an alarmed colleague, who knew Ames was one of the few officers with access to the blown Soviet agents, tipped off the agency that Ames was spending way beyond his means.
Once the agency and then the FBI zeroed in on Ames, nailing him wasn't very hard. He never saw much need to be careful--he kept his correspondence with the Soviets on his home computer. In a search of Ames's house after his arrest in February, 1994, the FBI found a letter from the KGB containing a photo of land where, they said, Ames could build his retirement dacha.
Ames was under some suspicion from the late 1980s but was allowed to go on spying until early 1994. Why the laxity? All three books blame the lapses on the self-protective CIA culture, particularly that of the Directorate of Operations, the secret branch where Ames spent most of his career. Heavy drinking and flouting of regulations were apparently common among DO officers, who routinely covered up misdeeds by colleagues. Because of bureaucratic rivalries, it wasn't until 1991 that the CIA brought in the FBI, which has responsibility for tracking down spies in the U.S.
In the end, no one in Langley paid much of a price for the Ames debacle. Eleven CIA officers, all but one of them retired, received "severe" letters of reprimand. But the affair was a body blow to the agency at a time when its raison d'tre was already in question because of the end of the cold war. In court to receive a life prison sentence, Ames dealt the agency another bruise, calling it "a self-serving sham, carried out by careerist bureaucrats who have managed to deceive...American policymakers and the public."
It is hard to disagree with his comments after reading these books. But it is still infuriating that, as Weiner's team reports, Ames was "thrilled and fascinated" by the fact that his critique had been taken very seriously by policymakers and the press. Only a hard knock could puncture his smug satisfaction, like the one dealt to him in one of the Times reporters' phone interviews. Ames was asked: Shouldn't he have quit the agency 10 years earlier--before his bitterness turned to betrayal? In response, the master spy began crying and hung up the phone.