FBI watched, listened, court affidavit shows

February 24, 1994|By Newsday

WASHINGTON -- On a balmy evening last September, all the world seemed to know that the superpower Cold War was over. Four years earlier, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and just a week earlier the United States and Russia had agreed to jointly design and build an international space station.

But on the leafy residential streets two miles northwest of the White House on the evening of Sept. 9, the game of spies was continuing. FBI agents with video cameras were recording every move as a man and a woman drove slowly through the neighborhood, peering intently out the windows of their Jaguar.

According to a court affidavit, the man was Aldrich "Rick" Ames, 52, a career midlevel analyst of the CIA. The woman was his Colombian-born wife, Maria del Rosario Casas Ames, 42, known as Rosario. Both were arrested Monday and now are in jail, accused of selling state secrets first to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, then to Russia in the 1990s after the Soviet empire collapsed. If convicted, they face life in prison.

In the mid '80s, when his spying allegedly began, Mr. Ames headed the CIA's Soviet branch of counterintelligence -- the effort to uncover enemy spies and recruit double agents. The affidavit identified one such agent as allegedly betrayed by Mr. Ames and executed by Moscow, but sources said he may have compromised as many as six Soviets who were working for the CIA.

The Ames case jolted the Clinton administration and its relations with the Russian government, headed by Boris N. Yeltsin, and underscored a fact of life repeated yesterday by a former U.S. intelligence official: "There may be no more Cold War, but there still is a need for information, lots of information. So there are spies, lots of spies."

And, as government documents and interviews show in sometimes tantalizing detail, sophisticated surveillance, eavesdropping, photographic and other means are used in the game of spy vs. spy.

On Sept. 9, according to government documents disclosing the video surveillance, the Ameses attended a parents' night program at their 4-year-old son's school in suburban Virginia, then crossed the Potomac River and drove to Garfield Street and Garfield Terrace in a residential neighborhood of northwest Washington.

"Ames and his wife were attempting to verify through a signal site that a dead drop he had filled that day was unloaded" by Russian agents, according to an affidavit filed in federal court by the FBI's Leslie G. Wiser Jr. In spy talk, a "dead drop" is a location -- such as a pipe or log -- where documents, money, film or computer diskettes can be deposited by one agent and picked up by another, without face-to-face contact.

The neighborhood, north of Rock Creek between Connecticut and Wisconsin avenues, is home to such prominent people as former Secretary of State James A. Baker III. And it was a mailbox in this neighborhood, the FBI agent suggested, that Mr. Ames and Russian agents marked to signal that a dead drop had been made.

The richly detailed 39-page affidavit filed in federal court Tuesday after the arrests gives hints of how the government built its case against the Ameses.

There were listening devices planted in the home they had purchased in 1989 -- for $540,000 cash -- as well as taps on their telephones and computer.

Federal agents rummaged repeatedly through their garbage, finding torn-up notes they pieced together and typewriter ribbons they used to reconstruct other messages.

The FBI electronically monitored the Ameses' bank accounts and reconstructed the flow of more than $1.5 million into those accounts.

Agents searched Mr. Ames' desk in Room GV06, a basement office at the CIA's campuslike complex in Northern Virginia.

Mr. Ames' government salary never exceeded $70,000 a year, but this income was far outpaced by the family's spending.

One question being asked yesterday was whether the high level of spending had gone undetected by the intelligence agency -- neighbors said the Ameses' wealth seemed to have been attributed to her family in South America.

Documents released after the arrests suggest that as far back as the mid-1980s the FBI -- which kept an intensive watch on Soviet personnel in this country -- became aware of Ames' meetings with Soviet agents, but that the CIA may have been unaware of the contacts because Mr. Ames did not regularly report them as required.

"A review of pertinent investigative records revealed that Mr. Ames scheduled numerous meetings with Soviet Embassy personnel which he either did not report at all or reported months afterward," one document said. It cited as an example a Feb. 14, 1986, meeting between Mr. Ames and a Soviet contact, followed by bank deposits totaling $20,000 cash. While the document said the meeting was noted in "FBI records," it did not say whether the FBI informed the CIA at the time.

At some points, the FBI affidavit sounds a bit like a spy novel from the height of the Cold War.

It describes in detail, for instance, how "video surveillance" detected Mr. Ames leaving his home at 6:22 a.m. Oct. 23 and returning 22 minutes later. During that time, the document suggested, he drove into the Georgetown section of the capital and placed "a horizontal mark on the mailbox at 37th and R Sts.," as a signal that he would keep a date to meet his Soviet contact in Bogota, Colombia, in early November.

The mailbox is about a half-mile from the Mount Alto residential compound of Russian diplomats along a route they could follow to reach the Soviet Embassy in downtown Washington.

"It is common intelligence tradecraft practice to place signal sites along routes normally traveled by the party being signaled," the FBI document said.

No "horizontal mark" could be detected Wednesday on that mailbox. But a magazine photographer was there anyway, snapping pictures while puzzled passers-by looked on.

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