Accused double agent viewed by colleagues as a gentleman and a plodder

February 27, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- When Aldrich H. Ames first went to work at the headquarters of the CIA in 1959 a few miles from his home, it was much like a son following his father in working at the local mill.

His father had been a longtime CIA employee, and as a member of the agency's extended family, "Rick" Ames had always been fascinated by the world of espionage and was expected to flourish.

Instead, he was quickly marked as plodding and unimaginative, a judgment that would follow him throughout his 32-year career, which ended last week with his arrest as an agent for Moscow.

The FBI charged in an affidavit that Mr. Ames and his wife, Maria del Rosario Casas Ames, received more than $1.5 million for selling secrets first to the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service, beginning in 1985, and then to the successor Russian intelligence agency.

Mr. Ames was first sent abroad by the CIA in 1969 to Ankara, Turkey, at the time an exotic and boisterous battleground in the espionage wars between the East and the West. But his superiors said he was not energetic and failed to recruit a single agent, his main assignment.

A former CIA officer who was Mr. Ames' superior at the time and who participated in his evaluation said he was a poor case officer who was not marked for success. "He was on a rubber rung of a career ladder," the former official said.

The official, who is now retired after a lengthy career as an undercover operative and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that despite Mr. Ames' lackluster performance, "he exuded this feeling of superiority to everyone else; it was really quite amazing."

The failure to produce results coupled with his superior attitude, the officer said, was a dangerous combination, producing in him a smoldering resentment, he said.

Mr. Ames would in the end not rise much further in the agency than did his father, Carleton Cecil Ames, who was a middle-level analyst, never involved in covert operations.

Yet, in a connection that would later provide a poignant dimension to the arrest last week, Carleton Ames worked for a brief period in counterintelligence under James Angleton, who, from 1954 to 1974, scoured the files of the agency and scourged CIA officers in his search for a mole, a traitor within the agency who was feeding information to the Soviets. He never found one.

Mr. Angleton, discredited and accused of immobilizing the agency with an unfounded paranoia, was dismissed in 1975.

So far as is known, he never met Aldrich Ames, who would later be accused of becoming precisely the kind of mole that energized Mr. Angleton's suspicions.

Mr. Ames joined the CIA when he was only 21 years old and had not yet even received a college degree.

As the son of Carleton Ames, he received the kind of preferential treatment the agency afforded in those days to the children of its officers. He was first a summer intern after his graduation from high school in 1959 and then a full-time office boy of sorts.

At McLean High School in a Virginia suburb of Washington, Mr. Ames was one of several children whose parents worked in the agency in nearby Langley.

Rick Ames was a member of the dramatic society and was quiet but not withdrawn, Corbin Thompson, a classmate, remembered.

After high school, the young Ames, with the encouragement of his father, decided to work at the agency. He went to college part-time at George Washington University and graduated in August 1967.

When Rick Ames first joined the CIA, the agency was still riding high in the public mind, its officers the modest gladiators of the Cold War, heroes of countless novels.

After his unhappy posting in Ankara, Mr. Ames was assigned to headquarters in Langley from 1972 to 1976 to help select Soviet officials for recruitment. It was during that period that the reputation of the CIA underwent a profound change that unsettled many of its officers. The agency was subjected to a series of shocks that began with the disclosure in December 1974 that it had spied on American citizens in the United States in violation of its charter.

They culminated in a Senate investigation by Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho, that revealed a series of misdeeds that transformed the image of the CIA.

During that time, Rick Ames was assigned to work in one area of the agency that was bustling, the rejuvenated Soviet section. The agency had all but shut down its efforts to penetrate the Soviet Union during the Angleton years, operating under the assumption that such operations were futile because the CIA was riddled with moles.

After the Angleton view was discredited, the agency began gearing up to run operations in the Soviet Union, and Mr. Ames was to be a part of it. But one of his supervisors at the time described Mr. Ames as did many others as plodding, not the kind who would come in the office in the morning with an idea. "He was just good ol' Rick, who did his routine work," the former official said.

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