Why a Spy Agency Couldn't See a Spy

March 02, 1994|By NATHAN MILLER

WASHINGTON — Washington.--Two questions come to mind in the wake of the arrest by the FBI of Aldrich Hazen Ames, the veteran Central Intelligence Agency counterintelligence official charged with being a Russian mole.

* Why did it take the CIA nearly eight years to finger Mr. Ames and his Colombian-born wife?

* What prompted him to betray his country and the CIA, for which he had worked 31 years?

The answers lie within the culture of the CIA itself.

Once the CIA became alarmed about the disappearance and presumed execution of its assets in Moscow, no one seems to have suspected Mr. Ames of being the traitor although he matched every test established by the intelligence community for pointing the finger at a potential defector.

Like most recent American turncoats, Mr. Ames bears little resemblance to the intellectualized spies of John LeCarre's novels or early Cold War spies such as the Rosenbergs, Klaus Fuchs, Kim Philby and others. The current round of traitors has been motivated by the prospects of financial gain rather than ideological identification with the cause of communism.

For the most part they have been low- and mid-level employees of the intelligence agencies, relatively unsupervised, suffering from emotional problems or discontented with their jobs or prospects for promotion and with serious financial problems. To them, treason is merely a way to make a fast buck.

Mr. Ames met this profile. Despite his high-sounding former position as head of the CIA's office dealing with counterespionage against the Soviet Union, he was after 31 years service far from the agency's inner circle. He held a mid-level job equivalent to a GS-14 in the Civil Service or a lieutenant colonel in the military and earned about $70,000 yearly.

Moreover, there are reports that he was a heavy drinker and had complained about money problems before showing sudden signs of wealth. Mr. Ames' marriage to a foreigner -- even one who had once been a CIA asset -- should have been enough to attract attention within the agency but it seems to have been passed over. Numerous unauthorized trips abroad also failed to raise eyebrows.

Allen Dulles, a former Director of Central Intelligence, once said that a good spy should have a passion for anonymity, but Mr. Ames constantly called attention to himself. He purchased a new home for $540,000 in an all-cash deal, spent $100,000 on home improvements, drove a Jaguar, charged $455,000 on credit cards over an eight-year period and had a condominium and farm in Colombia.

Mr. Ames accounted for his new-found riches by hinting that his wife came from a wealthy family. Instead, it was all paid for with some $2.5 million channeled from the KGB and its successor, the Russian Federation's MBRF.

Even though there were indications in the late 1980s -- not long after Mr. Ames had gone over to the Soviets -- that the CIA had been penetrated by a Soviet mole, a full-court press may not have been ordered because the agency's own ability and willingness to investigate itself had been severely damaged during the ''Great Mole Hunt'' of the late 1960s, led by James Jesus Angleton, the gray eminence of American counterintelligence.

A legendary figure within the CIA, Angleton was cadaverously thin, dressed in funereal black and cultivated a reputation as a man of mystery. After three decades in the looking-glass world of counterespionage, he had become obsessed with the idea that the Russians had penetrated the CIA. Kim Philby and Hans Felfe had risen to top posts in British and West German intelligence. Was it not likely that Langley also harbored a Soviet infiltrator?

As this obsession fed upon itself, Angleton became convinced that the CIA's agents and contacts behind the Iron Curtain were controlled by the KGB, and that most defectors were dispatched to the West by the Russians to spread disinformation. Moreover, he came to suspect some of the CIA's own officers, as well as others. Angleton purportedly told MI5, or British counterintelligence, that Harold Wilson, a former prime minister and leader of the Labor party, was a Soviet agent.

As Angleton's ''Great Mole Hunt'' gathered momentum, the CIA was thrown into turmoil, and the careers of several officers who were unfortunate to fall under suspicion were wrecked. His paranoia about KGB penetration became so all-consuming that William Colby, Director of Central Intelligence under President Ford, declared that ''we were devoting most of our time protecting ourselves from the KGB and not enough to developing the new sources and operations that we needed to learn secret information about the Soviets.''

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