To Aldrich Ames, his espionage was simply business and when, 28 years ago today, February 21, 1994, the FBI arrested Aldrich Ames as he drove from his Arlington, Virginia residence to CIA headquarters for an urgent meeting, he accepted it as a day which he knew may come. His arrest closed out his nine years of espionage, where his actions resulted in numerous CIA and FBI sources being compromised, some imprisoned, most executed.
He had a commodity which the Russians were more than happy to pay handsomely to obtain, the identities of those who were working with the U.S. or allied intelligence organizations; those who were being targeted by U.S. intelligence; and ancillary tidbits of classified information to which he had access.
In the November 1994 review, “An assessment of the Aldrich H. Ames espionage case and its implications for U.S. intelligence” released by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), the nature of Ame’s depth of his collaboration is amply described with this observation, “Ames wrapped up five to seven pounds of message traffic in plastic bags and hand-carried them out of the CIA Headquarters building for delivery to the KGB, knowing that the CIA no longer examined packages carried out of the building by Agency employees.”
It was safe to say, and he did, if it crossed his desk, he compromised the information to the KGB/SVR.
Top 5 Takeaways from Aldrich Ames
But what changed following Ames? What can we learn from the years of his espionage?
1. Financial Disclosures
If you are a government employee and filing a financial disclosure, it was the Ames case that finally laid bare the need to monitor the finances of those in positions of trust. It is well documented how Ames was paid over a million dollars in cash and had more held in escrow by the Russians for his espionage.
During his assignment in Rome, the State Department security officer at the Rome Embassy brought to the attention of the Chief of Station that Ames’s spending and drinking habits were outside the norms. This observation by a third-party, not associated with the CIA, never made it into Ames file, nor was it brought to the attention of CIA Headquarters. The COS pocketed it.
Equally well documented is the brashness in which Ames flouted his money upon his return from his Rome assignment in 1989, attributing it to his spouse, who hailed from Colombia, as having inherited a family nest egg. Ames paid more than half a million dollars, cash, for a home in the Dover Crystal neighborhood of Arlington, VA, he also purchased the latest Jaguar and shifted his clothes from Sears and Penny’s rack ware to that made by the hands of Italian tailors.
One officer who knew Ames during his Mexico City assignment, where he was anything but a fashion plate and who seemed always to be tight for cash, became suspicious of his new lifestyle and appropriately reported it. The CIA’s OIG report on the Ames case duly notes that the information “was brought to the attention of the mole hunt team by a CIA employee in late 1989, and a CIC officer began a financial inquiry. The preliminary results of the financial inquiry indicated several large cash transactions but were not considered particularly significant at the time.”
Financial disclosures are the norm within the CIA, as they should be.
2. AMES Foreign Travel/Contacts
Throughout Ames’s period of espionage, he fudged or omitted completely the details of contact with Russian nationals or foreign travel to meet with Russian intelligence. He would file a travel notice that he was going to Colombia to visit his wife’s family and then make a side trip to Caracas, Venezuela for an operational meeting with Russian intelligence.
While one might opine, of course he would, he was committing espionage. His proclivity for omissions pre-date his nine years of espionage and can be documented back to his Mexico City assignment. Ames went to Mexico City unaccompanied; he and his spouse were separated and heading toward divorce. The SSCI report notes, “While he had hoped that his marriage could endure during his unaccompanied tour in Mexico, Ames engaged in at least three extramarital affairs during the early part of this assignment. Toward the end of 1982, Ames realized he had no desire to salvage his marriage. It was during this period in late 1982 that he met Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy, the cultural attaché at the Colombian Embassy in Mexico City.”
Rosario had been recruited by the CIA Station in Mexico City as a paid source providing assessment information on targets of interest via her position on the local diplomatic association board, which included a KGB officer. While his contact with Rosario for purposes of debriefing/tasking was documented, his romantic encounters with Rosario never made the files. The SSCI report goes on to note, that during the period of their “romance” colleagues observed and recognized what was happening yet did not document nor did their knowledge carry sufficient weight for Ames to report his close and continuing relationship with Rosario. It was only when Ames, post-divorce, filed to marry a foreign national did it become clear.
Foreign travel and foreign contact reporting are necessary components at both protecting the employee, as well as the national interests.
3. Alcohol Abuse
His performance reviews rarely mentioned his drinking problem.
In one episode in Mexico, he was intoxicated and went toe-to-toe with a Cuban official at a diplomatic reception. He was recommended he be assessed for “alcohol abuse” by Headquarters. His 1983 background reinvestigation labeled him as a social drinker.
In Rome, he is remembered as going out for liquid lunches and falling asleep at his desk in the afternoon. One of his Rome supervisors recalled that Ames was drunk about three times a week between 1986 and 1988. Another colleague commented that in 1987 Ames was very upset when he failed to get promoted, and he began to drink even more heavily. One of Ames’s supervisors reportedly once described Ames to a colleague as “one of the worst drunks in the outfit.”
During his tenure at CIA Headquarters his run-ins with Agency security officers resulted in Eyes Only memorandum being placed in his “security” file – in one instance, he became so inebriated at an office Christmas party the Office of Security was summoned to take him home, and in another subsequent celebratory episode, he was discovered inebriated and “in a compromising position with a female CIA colleague” by an Agency security officer.
Ames would go on to say that he felt he didn’t drink as much as others within the Agency, perhaps he didn’t, he did however, cause a review and adjustment as to how alcohol abuse was handled within the organization, for the better.
4. Pass the trash
Ames entered on duty as a clerk in 1962 and went to school at George Washington University. Once he obtained his degree, he applied for the career trainee program with the Directorate of Operations, he was accepted. At the end of his first tour abroad as an ops officer in Ankara, Turkey in 1969 the rating officer characterized him as “unsuited for fieldwork and expressed the view that perhaps he should spend the remainder of his career at CIA Headquarters.”
Following his assignment to New York, where his official file didn’t match his hall file, his supervisors, according to the SSCI, “noted his tendency to procrastinate, particularly in terms of his late submissions of his financial accountings and operational contact reports.” In addition, his multiple security violations, during his tenure in New York highlighted his lack of attention to detail. One, noteworthy incident occurred in 1976 on his way to meet a Soviet asset he left his briefcase on a subway train. Of course, the briefcase contained the classified operational items, some of which could have compromised the asset.
During his Rome assignment, his performance was “mediocre or poor.” Indeed, Ames’s supervisor wrote, “He handles no ongoing cases; his efforts to initiate new developmental activity of any consequence have been desultory.” The SSCI report shares how, “One of Ames’s senior managers recently commented that he felt Ames had been a “terminal GS-14” and a lackluster, “middleweight” case officer.”
While it may be cumbersome to marshal an unfit employee out the door of the CIA, it is not impossible. CIA Director James Woolsey, by the way, fired Ames on February 18, 1994, demonstrating how easy it really is to terminate a CIA employee.
5. “Angleton Syndrome”
The pressures put on the CIA’s counterintelligence staff post-Angleton were not imagined. The CI career track was viewed with disdain by many. While more than 15 years had passed since Angleton’s departure from the CIA, the scar left behind created what became known as the “Angleton Syndrome.”
Ames began his espionage in 1985 when arguably the Soviet KGB was enjoying a gold rush of good fortune when it came to operations against the United States. Books, reports, reviews, and even a television series has been made about the mole hunt which was searching for Aldrich Ames.
Indeed, CIA operations officer Edward Lee Howard’s dismissal and subsequent defection to Russia provided a smokescreen for the compromises for which Ames was responsible. Similarly, Robert Hanssen, an FBI Special Agent, also focused on counterintelligence was providing information to Russian intelligence, some of which was similar to Ames, thus providing confirmation to the Russian’s that both of these assets were who they said they were.
Then you had the French asset, Farewell, who provided information on the compromise of U.S. communications in Moscow, which resulted in Project Gunman, the total replacement of plain-text processing equipment and the discovery of a number of IBM Selectric typewriters having been compromised within the unclassified offices of the Embassy. Couple that with the U.S. Marine Security Guard who became romantically entangled with Svetlana, the Russian telephone operator at the U.S. Embassy Moscow, who then met her “uncle” who attempted to garner intelligence for the KGB.
For those looking at the mess, it must have looked similar to a river of mud.
Yet, as evidenced by the plethora of “after the fact” reviews, there were most assuredly breadcrumbs present to be followed and opportunity to obviate the risk completely if one had not moved Ames along in his career and instead showed him the door.
CIA summation on Ames
“He had access to all the compromised cases; his financial resources improved substantially for unestablished reasons, and his laziness and poor performance were rather widely known. All of these are CI indicators that should have drawn attention to Ames. Combined they should have made him stand out.”
CIA Director Deutch in October 1995 made a statement to the public with respect to the CIA damage assessment. He noted how the OIG had identified 12 CIA officers who were to be held responsible for their roles the Ames case. All but one had by 1995 retired, limiting his options. He noted that “if these officers were still employed, I would have dismissed two individuals from the CIA, taken no action against five.” He did reprimand the one officer still employed and for the two which he would have dismissed he made sure that they would never been afforded employment with the Agency in the future.
Ames had it partially correct, espionage is a dangerous business. Thought as dangerous as it may be, it is a necessary part of maintaining the national security of the United States.