Spy suspect passed 2 polygraph tests

February 24, 1994|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Karen Hosler | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Aldrich Hazen Ames passed two polygraph tests in the nine years that he was allegedly being paid $1.5 million by the Soviets and Russians for his espionage services.

This, and the CIA's failure to lock onto the millionaire's lifestyle reportedly financed by his spymasters, were the keys to his survival as an alleged traitor for so long.

All CIA employees are given polygraph tests every five years, with questions keyed to establishing whether they are, in the terms of the spy trade, "clean." After his tests, Mr. Ames continued on the CIA payroll.

"I want some answers to that," said Sen. Dennis DeConcini, the Arizona Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "How could this have gone on for nine years?"

It took the CIA almost five years to identify its $70,000-a-year chief of Soviet counterintelligence as an alleged spy who supplied the Soviets with the identities of U.S. spies working in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s and other secret information.

It then took the FBI two years to collect enough evidence to charge him with espionage.

The sudden disappearance of the U.S. agents who were Soviet citizens rang the initial alarm bell in the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters. "That was the lead cause," said a CIA official who asked not to be named. "The fact that things were going wrong."

There were dozens of potential suspects in the CIA headquarters' Soviet branch and in the field.

According to Rep. Dan Glickman, the Kansas Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, suspicion focused initially on two Americans: Edward L. Howard, a CIA agent who defected to the Soviet Union in 1986, and Clayton J. Lonetree, a Marine sergeant at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow who was accused of espionage in 1987 after allowing Soviet agents to roam through the U.S. compound.

Nothing immediately drew suspicion to Mr. Ames, a veteran agent with "top secret" clearance who joined the service in 1962 and 21 years later was chosen to try to recruit Soviet diplomats here to be American spies. Instead, according to FBI court papers, the Soviets turned him into a Soviet spy.

The Republican vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, joined Mr. DeConcini in writing a letter yesterday to the CIA inspector general, seeking a formal investigation of the CIA's handling of the episode. The committee will not open its own investigation, but questions on the Ames case are likely to come up in hearings on the FBI next week.

Just as frustrating as the failure of the lie-detector tests to uncover Mr. Ames' alleged activities was the failure by the CIA security office to pick up the telltale signs of a lifestyle that far exceeded Mr. Ames' income.

His cash purchase of a $540,000 home in an affluent area of Arlington, Va., his $445,000 credit card purchases over an eight-year period, his purchase of $165,000 in stocks and securities, his ownership of a $25,000 Jaguar, if they were noticed at all, were initially attributed to his marriage to a wealthy Colombian-born woman, Maria del Rosario Casas, who now stands accused of conspiracy with him.

"Unless somebody is actually a target of an investigation, something like that could be missed," said a CIA official.

Members of Congress and security analysts were less sanguine.

Calling the case "a tremendous embarrassment" to the CIA, Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, the Ohio Democrat who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: "How is it possible that the spy agency that claims to be the world's greatest did not have a clue for years that someone in such a crucial top secret position had betrayed them?"

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