Accused spy Ames is negotiating with prosecutors

March 24, 1994|By New York Tines News Service

WASHINGTON -- Federal prosecutors have begun negotiations with Aldrich H. Ames that they hope will lead to a plea agreement with the career intelligence officer and his wife, Rosario, who have been accused of spying for Moscow, government officials say.

At this stage, federal prosecutors have agreed only to show defense lawyers portions of the cache of circumstantial evidence that investigators turned up in their electronic surveillance of the couple and in searches of Mr. Ames' home, office and personal computer files.

That information would enable defense lawyers to assess the likelihood that the government would prevail against the Ameses in a trial, a prospect that appeared to be strengthened when, prosecutors said, Mrs. Ames unexpectedly confessed to spying for Moscow in a conversation she had with federal agents shortly after her arrest Feb. 21.

The discussions between prosecutors and lawyers for the couple are delicate and still at a preliminary phase, the officials said yesterday. But lawyers inside and outside the government predict that Mr. Ames and his wife are more likely to seek a plea agreement.

Both the Ameses and the government appear to have an incentive to avoid a trial.

The government wants Mr. Ames to describe any espionage activity he may have engaged in, but prosecutors want to avoid spending time and money on a trial in which they would almost certainly be forced to disclose details of highly classified operations.

Moreover, the CIA might be embarrassed if defense lawyers questioned the agency's failure to detect Mr. Ames years earlier.

Mr. Ames and his wife are both presumed to be seeking leniency, lawyers say. They already have asked the government to unfreeze some of their funds to care for their 5-year-old son, Paul.

Both Mr. Ames and his wife have been denied bail and their son is being cared for by relatives. Some defense lawyers have suggested in interviews that Mr. Ames might accept a plea agreement with the understanding that his wife would receive a lesser sentence so that she could take care of their son.

But people who are following the case cautioned that neither side had directly proposed any possible terms of a plea arrangement, nor have prosecutors turned over any material to Mr. Ames' defense lawyers beyond the carefully limited disclosures they have made in legal papers and in testimony at preliminary hearings held since the arrest of Mr. Ames and his wife.

Both sides nonetheless agreed in court papers filed last Friday ,, to postpone an expected indictment against the couple "for the purpose of expediting pretrial discovery." Discovery refers to information provided by one side to the other in a court proceeding.

Prosecutors have accused Mr. Ames, a 31-year intelligence officer at the agency, and his wife, whom he met when he recruited her as a paid CIA. informer while stationed in Mexico City, of conspiring to commit espionage.

In court documents, the government has accused the couple of accepting more than $2.5 million in payments from the Soviet KGB and later from the Russian intelligence service during a nine-year espionage career.

Since their arrest, the couple have been held without bail in a local jail in suburban Virginia.

Prosecutors said that when they searched the couple's home in Alexandria, Va., they found highly classified CIA documents in a computer as well as messages to Mr. Ames' contacts in Moscow and references to his spying activities dating from the mid-1980s.

Intelligence officials have said the case is the worst incident of spying in the CIA's 47-year history because of the sensitive nature of the information Mr. Ames is accused of compromising.

The case has also sent shock waves through the intelligence agency because Mr. Ames is said to have gone undetected for years, even though he lived lavishly on a salary that never exceeded $69,000 a year.

Plato Cacheris, Mr. Ames' lawyer said, "We asked for the continuance to obtain documents so that we could make an intelligent assessment of the case."

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