Double Agent

  • On a hot August afternoon in 1985, Aldrich Hazen Ames exchanged vows with Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy in a charming little church nestled by a hill in Arlington, Virginia. It was the bridegroom's second marriage, the bride's first. The small knot of family members and friends, sweltering in the humid, 87 degreesF air, might have expected to be rewarded with a meal for their attendance. But after the ceremony, guests were offered only wine. Ames explained that he couldn't afford a fancy reception because the cost of his previous marriage's breakup had cleaned him out. Guests had no reason to doubt him. His divorce from Nancy, a fellow Central Intelligence Agency employee, had become final only 12 days earlier in New York City. In preceding months, Ames had complained bitterly to colleagues at the CIA that the long, messy divorce had gutted his modest civil service paycheck, leaving him "poor."

    But Ames' finances had taken a sharp turn for the better in a way that he could not admit to his colleagues at the CIA. Actually, he and Rosario had enough money to spring for champagne, canapes and caviar. Three months before, on May 18, Rosario had made a $9,000 cash deposit in her checking account at the Dominion Bank of Virginia. Before their wedding day, that nest egg would grow to $38,100 as Rosario made another deposit and Ames made five deposits to his own checking account at the same bank. The money had come from Moscow.

    On that sticky day in August 1985, Ames had a lot on his mind. Only 10 days earlier, Vitali Yurchenko, a senior Soviet intelligence official, had defected -- or pretended to defect -- to the U.S. Ames had been assigned to meet Yurchenko's plane at Andrews Air Force Base, but after a night of drinking, he'd overslept his alarm and he arrived a few minutes late. Now, after that inauspicious start, Ames was involved in debriefing Yurchenko every day on KGB operations against Western countries, including penetration of U.S. agencies. Ames was also preparing for a transfer from CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to Rome and was trying to master Italian.

    At the same time, Ames may have been concerned that his marriage was frowned upon by his CIA superiors. The couple first met in 1982 while holding down posts in Mexico City, he as a CIA case officer, she as a cultural attache at the Colombian embassy. The next year, he put her on the CIA payroll as an informant. By the time they left Mexico later that year, Rosario was his girlfriend. CIA case officers are not supposed to have affairs with their agents or marry foreign nationals. Somehow Ames got away with doing both.

    That was the least of what Ames and his wife were up to. They had a secret that would become too big to conceal. Over the next nine years, according to a detailed affidavit released last week by federal prosecutors, Ames allegedly sold the KGB and its successor agency, the MBRF, the names of Soviet agents who had been recruited by the CIA, as well as valuable secrets about U.S. surveillance of the Soviet Union. During that time, the couple made dozens of large cash deposits to two Virginia banks and transferred other sums to banks in the U.S. and abroad. Eventually these transactions totaled $1.5 million -- all of it allegedly paid to the Ameses first by the Soviet Union, then by Russia, in exchange for national-security secrets. Last week Ames, 52, and his wife, 41, were arrested in Arlington, Virginia, and charged with conspiracy to commit espionage. If convicted, they could face life in prison.

    In Washington officials speculated that the Ames case could prove to be the worst betrayal of intelligence agents in U.S. history. With Ames refusing to talk and his wife only hinting that she might cooperate, spymasters and legislators could only guess at the extent of the damage. Ames knew the true names of virtually all the Soviet agents, and later Russian ones, being recruited. As many as a dozen CIA operations may have been compromised as a direct result of the Ameses' activities, resulting in the execution of as many as 10 Soviet agents. There was no indication that Ames had passed along military secrets, but the possibility that he tipped off Moscow to virtually every CIA intelligence-gathering operation against the Soviets in recent years poses grave questions about America's security apparatus in the post-cold war era.

    Politicians were quick to ask those questions. Democrat Dan Glickman of Kansas, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, pledged an "extensive, exhaustive review" of the case. Republicans in both chambers demanded a "rethinking" of the Clinton Administration's close ties to Russian President Boris Yeltsin and threatened to halt aid to Russia if Moscow didn't come up with some explanations -- and fast.

    The Administration took several steps to calm the mounting fury. President Clinton demanded that Moscow immediately withdraw from Washington any Russians involved in the alleged espionage, and called for cooperation in U.S. efforts to assess the damage. A high-level CIA team was dispatched to Moscow to obtain information from the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. After they returned empty-handed, Clinton ordered the expulsion of Alexander Lysenko, a Washington-based Russian "diplomat" who is reputedly the MBRF's top-ranking official in the U.S.

    The most uncomfortable questions have more to do with U.S. intelligence failures than Russian perfidy. When and where was Ames recruited? Did he recruit his wife -- or was it the other way around? Why did their activities go undetected for so long? Given his GS-14 salary of $69,843, why didn't their $540,000 house and $65,000 Jaguar raise alarms? When did CIA and FBI investigators begin to catch on? If it was as early as 1986 and no later than 1991, why did investigators wait so long to make the arrests? Most important, are there other moles burrowed within the CIA?

    Aldrich ("Rick") Ames was an improbable spy -- which is probably why he made such a good one for so many years. Born in River Falls, Wisconsin, in 1941, Ames was part of a highly respected local clan. His paternal grandfather J.H. Ames served for three decades as president of River Falls Teacher's $ College, his father Carleton taught history at the college for 14 years, and his mother Rachel graduated from the school. In 1951 Carleton and Rachel moved their son and two daughters to Virginia, where Rachel got a teaching job and Carleton became an analyst with the CIA

    The younger Ames' interest in spycatching may have been stoked by his father, a pipe-smoking member of the CIA counterintelligence staff created and run by the monomaniacal mole hunter James Jesus Angleton. But Carleton had an undistinguished career tracking communist parties and front groups. After he retired from the agency in the 1960s, few remembered much about him beyond his penchant for taking long naps at his desk. Still, the father, now dead, left one important legacy to the CIA: his son, who in 1962 signed on as a trainee.

    At the time, Rick Ames did not have a college degree, which hindered him in his pursuit of the case-officer position he coveted. In 1967 he graduated from George Washington University with a bachelor's degree in history. By then he apparently was already evading notice: his picture does not appear in his graduation yearbook. Degree in hand, Ames began training as a case officer, learning the ins and outs of detecting enemy spies and attempting to recruit them as U.S. agents. He seemed undaunted by the anti-Vietnam War mania and communist sympathy that were rocking his generation; he just wanted to catch commies and turn them. His promotion, however, was somewhat diminished by an elitist attitude within the agency that accorded higher value to those who were hired as case officers than to those who earned that stripe. A former CIA officer who remembers Ames from those days suggests that "maybe there was some resentment" on the young man's part.

    In 1969 Ames and first wife Nancy, who worked with him in the CIA, were posted to Ankara, Turkey. With the northeastern frontier of that country bordering on the Soviet Union, this was a prime CIA post for recruiting agents for the U.S. from the local assortment of Soviet embassy, trade and press employees. One of Ames' supervisors from that period remembers him as being dull, unsophisticated and lackadaisical. "Did what he was supposed to, went where you asked him to, but he wasn't impressive," he says. Nancy, by contrast, was "aggressive and pushy." He recalls that with the women's movement gaining momentum, Nancy, who worked for the agency on and off, was outspoken in her demands for job parity. "Wanted to be called an operations officer," the colleague says. "A bigger pain than he was."

    Ames returned to the CIA's Langley headquarters in 1972, where he reportedly spent the next five years brushing up his analytic skills. The year Jimmy Carter was elected President, Ames moved north to New York City, where he did what most CIA spycatchers do when they're posted to Manhattan: he hunted potential "human assets" at the United Nations. If Ames hadn't come to the KGB's attention in Ankara, he certainly did while in Manhattan. During that four-year tour, Ames and his wife lived in a 31-story building on the East Side, a five-minute walk from the U.N.

    When Ames was posted to Mexico City in 1981, Nancy did not follow. As in Ankara and New York, Ames was assigned to the CIA's Soviet/East Europe (S.E.) division to hunt potential agents. At that time, with President Reagan soon to embark on a crusade against the "Evil Empire," the fever for recruiting Soviet spies was rising. In the fall of 1980 the FBI and CIA had launched Operation Courtship in the hope of penetrating the big KGB station in Washington. While Ames was in Mexico dining and cultivating KGB officers, the FBI netted two important Washington-based KGB spies: Lieut. Colonel Valeri Martynov, a scientific specialist who masqueraded as an embassy cultural- affairs officer; and Major Sergei Motorin, a political-affairs specialist. Their secret would not be safe.

    It remains a mystery whether Ames, despite a frantic effort to cultivate one particular KGB officer, recruited any Soviets during this period in Mexico -- or allowed himself to be seduced by the other side. But he did make one contact that would change his life: Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy, a cultural attache at the Colombian embassy. "She was efficient and stood out because of her intelligence," says Noemi Sanin, Colombia's Foreign Minister. "We are investigating her activities now, but initially they seem all normal." According to the affidavit released last week by U.S. prosecutors, the CIA began to court her in June 1982. Ten months later, she went on the CIA payroll.

    Rosario is a member of a prominent Colombian family. Her father was a respected Senator, and she was a respected figure in her own right. After obtaining a master's degree in ancient Greek, she taught Greek, literary theory and contemporary culture at the University of the Andes from 1976 to 1982. Students remember her as a brilliant scholar and a dedicated teacher. - During those years, Rosario hobnobbed with some of the region's greatest writers, among them Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Gretel Wernher, dean of the social-sciences department, characterizes Rosario's student years as "disciplined and responsible." Those qualities would be essential to helping Rosario and Ames hide their espionage activities in the years to come -- especially since Ames, by one colleague's account, "wasn't a man who paid a lot of attention to detail."

    It is unknown what drew the bookwormish Rosario and the unintellectual Ames together. The larger question is who turned whose patriotic loyalties. Was Rosario the original turncoat, playing along with Ames in order to recruit him for her Moscow handlers? Or was Ames a double agent by then, persuading Rosario to spy first on Colombia for the U.S., then on the U.S. for the Soviet Union? Two FBI officials involved in the case insist that Ames was turned first and that Rosario went along, subsequently displaying aggressive greed.

    In December 1983, Rosario went off the CIA payroll. At roughly the same time, Ames was transferred back to Langley headquarters. The shock of discovering that Ames' paycheck did not stretch as far in Washington as it had in Mexico City was probably compounded by Rosario's loss of income as both a cultural attache and a spy. At the same time, Ames' marriage was heading for divorce.

    From late 1983 through 1985, Ames served as chief of the Soviet counterintelligence branch in the S.E. division. With this elevation in status came new duties. From March 1984 to July 1986, when he was transferred to Rome, Ames was authorized to hold frequent phone conversations and meetings with Soviet embassy officials. CIA rules mandated that all such contacts be cleared in advance or reported afterward. Unknown to his superiors, however, Ames began to conduct unauthorized, unreported conversations.

    Six months after marrying Rosario, for instance, Ames scheduled a meeting with a Soviet contact. This is the first such unauthorized contact described in the 39-page federal affidavit. By that account, "on or about February 14, 1986, Ames scheduled a meeting with a Soviet contact, which, according to CIA records, he did not thereafter report." This notation implies that Ames' phone transaction was tape-recorded by the FBI but was not cross-checked at the time with CIA records, a move that might have exposed Ames' alleged activities early on. The affidavit further notes that according to bank- deposit slips, the next day Ames and Rosario made four cash deposits totaling $24,000 in their Dominion Bank of Virginia accounts.

    Both the phone call and the traceable deposits were careless tradecraft on Ames' part, particularly given the intelligence climate in Washington. The year before, so many Americans had been discovered spying for Moscow -- Edward Lee Howard, Ronald Pelton, John Walker -- that the press had dubbed 1985 "the year of the spy." Pelton and Howard had both been exposed by Yurchenko, the senior KGB officer who had been debriefed by Ames and others before redefecting three months later.

    At about the same time, CIA and FBI officials received three grave indicators that they had a mole in their midst. Before they could arrest Howard, he fled to Moscow, seemingly tipped off that the net was closing fast. Perhaps more damaging for intelligence operations, the 1980 Operation Courtship double agents, Motorin and Martynov, were ordered back to Moscow and executed. Again, a mole's touch was indicated.

    If Ames was the hand behind the Howard, Motorin and Martynov debacles -- as is now suspected -- he was a cool number. In 1986 he passed the polygraph test routinely administered to intelligence officials every five years. By then there were subtle changes in Ames' behavior, but nothing that a lie detector would pick up. Colleagues still found Ames unsophisticated and lazy, but his dullness had been replaced by a cavalier attitude and an appetite for drinking and dancing. Agency hands recall Ames' sitting with his feet propped on his desk, smoking cigarettes and reading old counterintelligence files. He also spent a lot of time chatting in colleagues' offices -- conversations that will now have to be reconstructed to deduce what Ames might have learned that would have been of value to Moscow.

    With the posting to Italy in 1986, Ames' sociability reached new heights. Milan's daily Corriere della Sera reported last week that during his three- year tour, Ames was a fixture in Rome's most glittery night spots. One diplomat believes that unlike many other career wives, Rosario steered clear of the diplomatic community. During this period, the Ameses transferred large sums of money to banks in Switzerland, Colombia and Italy. Some of these accounts were held jointly with Rosario's mother.

    After the couple returned to Washington in 1989, Ames resumed work at Langley while Rosario enrolled in graduate philosophy studies at Georgetown University. Apparently planning to stay awhile, they dug into their reserves to pay cash for a $540,000 house in Arlington, $7,000 worth of furniture and a $19,500 Honda. They also paid $275 weekly for the care of their son Paul. Maria Trinidad Chirino, who served as the boy's nanny during this period, told reporters last week that she was ordered to take Paul out almost as soon as she arrived at 9 each day, and not to return unless one of the parents was at home. Chirino, whose relationship with the Ameses ended bitterly, claims that she was absolutely forbidden to enter certain rooms in the house.

    During all this time, neither the CIA nor the FBI made much progress ferreting out the mole they'd first suspected in 1985. Some congressional sources contend that investigative efforts were paralyzed by the CIA's determination to blame all intelligence failures on already exposed agents like Howard and Pelton. It is possible that the CIA was onto Ames in 1989; his reassignment at Langley was a counternarcotics posting that seemed low-grade for a man of his experience. In any event, the FBI and CIA didn't form a joint task force and begin their hunt in earnest until 1991.

    What finally lighted a fire under investigators remains a public mystery. But a good guess would be the 1990 betrayal -- and disappearance -- of one of the CIA's most valuable foreign assets, a counterintelligence officer within KGB headquarters who was code-named Prologue, with the prefix GT, probably standing for a geographical area. In October 1993, FBI agents retrieved files from Ames' home computer, including a message typed by Ames on Dec. 17, 1990: "I did learn that GT Prologue is the cryptonym for the SCD officer I provided you information about earlier." According to the affidavit, Ames had access to information regarding GT Prologue, and only three days earlier had written a classified CIA memorandum on a related subject.

    Ames' transfer out of the S.E. division to the CIA's counternarcotics center, something of an agency backwater, took place in 1991. From then on, the affidavit indicates, the couple's every move was closely scrutinized. Investigators retrieved papers and typewriter or printer ribbons from the Ameses' trash, bugged their phone and house, maintained visual surveillance and tapped into Ames' personal computer. In this way, according to the affidavit, they learned of unreported trips that Ames made to Venezuela and Colombia and of a system for exchanging secret messages with his Russian handlers.

    A cryptic message lifted from the couple's trash last Sept. 15, for instance, signaled Ames' interest in scheduling a meeting in Bogota. It read, in part, "If you cannot meet ((piece missing)) 1 Oct, signal North after 27 Sept with message at Pipe." Through electronic and personal surveillance, investigators soon decoded the message: North was a mailbox where Ames and his handlers conveyed impersonal, prearranged messages; Pipe was the dead drop where detailed messages, instructions and money were exchanged.

    Last Oct. 6, investigators retrieved a message from the couple's trash that may prove most damaging of all. Written by Ames a year earlier, the message reads: "You have probably heard a bit about me by this time from your (and now my) colleagues in the MBRF." It suggests that Ames easily made the transition from his KGB patrons to their successors in the Russian intelligence service. Ames also wrote, "My wife has accomodated ((sic)) herself to understanding what I am doing in a very supportive way."

    Wiretaps of the couple's conversations indicate that Rosario was not only supportive; she at least tried to impose a modicum of discipline on the operation. Snippets of dialogue reported in the affidavit show that she grilled her husband for every detail about his alleged interactions with the Russians. While Ames comes off as relaxed and somewhat careless, she frets constantly. Did he send the message on time? Should she get Paul out of the house? Did he find a deft way to transport large sums of cash? Often she seems nervous and distrustful of Ames. At one point, she challenges him: "You wouldn't lie to me, would you?"

    Last week, when the couple were arrested, neighbors and former colleagues expressed shock. Ames and Rosario, they said, didn't seem like spies. In Colombia news of Rosario's arrest was greeted with outrage against the U.S. The Colombian chancellory ordered its ambassador in Washington to solicit official explanations as to why and how the CIA allegedly compromised Rosario during her tour at the Colombian embassy in Mexico City. If the charges prove false, Foreign Minister Sanin vowed, "Colombia will demand that the U.S. government make amends to re-establish ((Rosario's)) good name."

    U.S. legislators also have demands in store. Members of the Senate Intelligence Committee proposed bipartisan legislation requiring high-access intelligence employees to provide full financial-disclosu re statements, and for the CIA to expand its use of polygraph tests. Democrat Robert Torricelli, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, promised, "Heads will roll."

    Clinton, meanwhile, resisted calls to halt or cut foreign aid to Russia, holding fast to his support of Yeltsin and Russia's democratizing and economic reforms. "A great portion of our aid is to facilitate the dismantlement of nuclear weapons that were aimed at the United States for over four decades," he told leaders in both chambers. "It is in our interest, plainly, to continue this policy." The President's position is unlikely to change. In the roughly 10 months that he has known the Ameses were under investigation by a joint FBI-CIA task force, his policy toward Russia has not wavered.

    In the months ahead, efforts will be made by the Administration, the Congress, the courts and the intelligence community to determine the full extent of Rick and Rosario Ames' activities. But without their cooperation, it may never be learned what FBI and CIA operations, both past and present, they compromised -- and whose lives they destroyed. If proved guilty, they will have ruined their own. But there is a third life that wrenches the heart: that of their six-year-old son Paul. The boy, who is being cared for by relatives, may never again see either of his parents outside a courtroom or a federal prison.