The Ames Case: Act 3 to Come

April 29, 1994

One of the trickiest dilemmas facing a government is how to deal with an intelligence traitor it has caught. He must be punished severely, yet he must also be persuaded to disclose what information he passed on. The first concern is not just retribution; other potential traitors must fear the consequences. But the second factor can be vital, for the penetrated intelligence agency needs to know which secrets it lost, to whom, and how. The government has tried to resolve that contradictory challenge in the case of Aldrich H. Ames, the most damaging double agent in U.S. history.

How satisfactorily it has succeeded will not be clear for some months. At the behest of the CIA colleagues Ames betrayed, U.S. prosecutors have agreed to a relatively light sentence for his wife in return for his promise to tell all. Her sentencing has been put off for four months, to give CIA interrogators time to test the bargain. Ames was willing to accept a sentence of life without parole in order to give back a mother to their five-year-old son. The child was held hostage in a cruel bargain, but there can be no sympathy for either of his parents.

Assuming Ames lives up to his agreement, U.S. officials can now assess the damage Ames did and decide not just how to repair it but also how to prevent its happening again. Since there will be no trial, the public is left guessing how badly the CIA blundered in failing to catch him sooner. What little is known makes clear a case of ineptness, if not outright incompetence. There were clues John le Carre would not have deigned to use in a novel. The most elementary counter-intelligence methods were ignored or botched. Presumably R. James Woolsey, the new chief of the CIA, is weeding out those who failed to catch on to Ames soon enough.

Or is he? Given the secrecy with which the CIA still operates, the public will never know. The agency has always had too much of an old-boy atmosphere that took care of its own. Concern that the CIA bungled the Ames case and can't be trusted to police its own house has led to an agreement it will share responsibility in counter-intelligence with the FBI. Since domestic security has always been the FBI's responsibility, that makes sense. But there have been efforts to get those two jealous turf-protectors to cooperate before, with little success. That's partly because of the two agencies' conflicting cultures, but mostly it's been the CIA's refusal to share information or give the FBI access when it was clearly necessary.

With the end of the Cold War it might seem spy stories like this are no longer as important. Not so. If anything, the reduction of military threat makes satellite spying less fruitful, and human intelligence gathering more productive. The Ames case was a harsh lesson for U.S. intelligence. We can only pray it is being heeded.

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