CIA blamed for Ames security lapse

March 11, 1994|By Robin Wright and Robert L. Jackson | Robin Wright and Robert L. Jackson,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- After a series of closed sessions, congressional reviews of the Ames spy case have tentatively concluded that top CIA officials were to blame for damage caused by a suspected mole's sale of national security secrets to the Soviet Union, according ranking members of Congress.

Senate and House intelligence committees are grimly piecing together what is now widely described as a painful breakdown by top CIA officials of a plan to prevent security breaches of the kind posed by accused spy Aldrich H. Ames.

Mr. Ames and his wife, Rosario, might have been caught years earlier if the CIA had fully complied with a 1988 memo of understanding with the FBI on internal security, the chairmen of both committees said in interviews. Negotiated and approved by the two agencies after a wave of spy disclosures in the mid-1980s, the memo outlines a comprehensive security process to ferret out such threats.

But instead of following it by promptly alerting the FBI -- which is responsible for counterintelligence investigations -- to warning signals, top CIA officials kept their suspicions inside the agency, the chairmen said. When they later did call in the FBI, not enough information or access was provided to do the job.

The CIA lapsed into a traditional cloak-and-dagger "culture of secrecy," said Sen. Dennis DeConcini, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"Intelligence people have a hard time being straightforward, up-front with legitimate law enforcement investigations that deal with their areas, in this case counterespionage," the Arizona Democrat said.

Rep. Dan Glickman, a Democrat from Kansas who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that, because the CIA repeated mistakes of the past, the Ames case was "a catastrophe waiting to happen."

Mr. Ames, chief of Soviet counterintelligence in the CIA's Soviet-East European division, and his wife were arrested Feb. 21 on charges that they conspired to commit espionage. They allegedly were paid an estimated $2.5 million beginning in 1985 tospy for the Soviet Union and later Russia.

The couple is accused of disclosing the identities of U.S. agents, causing the deaths of at least 10 sources helping the United States abroad, and vastly compromising CIA intelligence efforts.

Further casting a shadow on top CIA officials' handling of Mr. Ames was the disclosure by an FBI agent testifying yesterday in a two-hour federal court hearing that Mr. Ames' CIA superiors were first alerted to his signs of sudden wealth in 1989 when he paid cash for a $540,000 house in suburban Virginia.

In that hearing, U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton declared that there is "a substantial probability" that Mr. Ames and his wife will be convicted of espionage and ordered them to transfer to their U.S. accounts hundreds of thousands of dollars they hold in overseas banks.

Ruling at the request of federal prosecutors, Judge Hilton also extended indefinitely a freeze on the Ameses' domestic holdings.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark J. Hulkower told the court the couple had "dissipated" most of the estimated $2.5 million they allegedly received from their Russian handlers, frustrating government efforts to recover the money.

Both houses of Congress are looking into reports that specific information about Mr. Ames known by CIA officials was not fully disclosed to the FBI at several critical junctures.

Even now, the CIA is not being completely forthcoming about counterintelligence and security vulnerability, the intelligence committee chairmen said. The agency's reluctance, which they attributed to an apparent attempt to protect intelligence tactics and personnel, is hindering the congressional investigations, they said.

"The agency is still being defensive," Mr. DeConcini said. "Trying to get information the last couple of days has been like trying to pull teeth without permission. It's hard."

Although the Ames investigation was launched during the Bush administration, CIA Director R. James Woolsey, a Clinton appointee, is coming under increasing criticism. "Woolsey has been a little reluctant to talk to us about the extent of the damage," Mr. Glickman said.

Lawmakers also expressed amazement this week that several top agency officials have been promoted by Mr. Woolsey, despite apparent lapses in oversight of Mr. Ames. Among those whose roles are being questioned by lawmakers are Hugh E. "Ted" Price and Thomas Twetton, former senior officials in the CIA operations directorate who directly supervised Mr. Ames.

Congressional sources suggest that major personnel changes may be necessary at the CIA.

"Obviously there are some problems there that are hard to explain," Mr. DeConcini said.

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