The Secret Life

April 30, 1994|By GLENN McNATT

The story of Aldrich H. Ames, the CIA spymaster who pleaded guilty this week to handing over American secrets to the former Soviet KGB, could almost have been written by that acknowledged master of the espionage thriller, John le Carre. But Ames is a far less interesting a character than any the novelist might have imagined.

On Thursday Ames admitted being paid more than $2 million over a seven-year period by his Moscow handlers in exchange for identifying Soviet citizens working for the CIA.

The government charged that Ames' betrayal resulted in the unmasking and execution of at least a dozen Eastern block agents employed by Washington. Ames entered his guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence without parole and a five-year sentence for his wife, Rosario, whom the government charged with abetting the scheme.

In a meandering statement to the the court, Ames expressed regret for those imprisoned or killed on the basis of information he supplied but insisted that he had done nothing to jeopardize national security and justified his actions on the grounds that he and his wife faced the same risks as those he betrayed.

The ostensible reason he gave for his treachery was money. He is said to have been in debt from a failed marriage. Once the Soviet money started pouring in, however, he and his second wife embarked on a spending spree that included a fancy house in Virginia, flashy cars, jewelry, etc. -- things he never could have afforded on his modest government salary. Why his sudden spurt of good fortune aroused no suspicions among his employers at Langley remains a mystery.

Still, Le Carre probably would have found little of interest in this tale. That is because Ames' gray-flannel evil is so banal; it lacks the element of personality that made, for example, Le Carre's own ''A Perfect Spy'' so compelling.

In that work, Le Carre's hero, like Ames, has risen steadily over the years in the esteem of his superiors, who by the book's opening are incapable of doubting his loyalty. But Le Carre's world is infinitely richer in perspective and nuance. When Le Carre's protagonist crosses to the other side, he does so not out of greed, but for love.

Now, there is nothing so hackneyed as a spy seduced by an irresistible Mata Hari. Replacing the female temptress with a male interlocutor introduces an element of homosexual prurience but does nothing to fundamentally alter the plot. Le Carre's genius was to dispense with both those contrivances in order to penetrate the central mystery of the act of betrayal.

The German sociologist Georg Simmel observed that every secret involves a paradox. While possession of a secret can confer status and power, for the holder of a secret to benefit from it others must know that he possesses it even if they do not know its contents. Indeed, the actual content of the secret may be quite unimportant. The critical factor is the tension between public acknowledgment of its existence and the hidden nature of its contents.

In traditional societies, this tension is often exploited as a way of assigning status and wielding authority within groups as well as demarking boundaries between groups. For example, two current museum shows -- "Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals," at the Walters Art Gallery, and "Face of the Spirits: Masks From the Zaire Basin," at the African Art Museum in Washington, D.C. -- both focus on the role secrets play in binding individuals within complex webs of social behavior.

For ex-Cold War spies, too, secrets are the ties that bind. Spies are lonely by virtue of the work they do. But unlike the secrets of traditional societies, it is forbidden to acknowledge even the existence of a modern nation's secrets. Yet an unacknowledged secret has no social power; it becomes merely another burden dividing the individual from others. Le Carre's hero betrays his country simply in order to establish a connection to another human being, even if that other is an enemy spy.

Perhaps this truth lies behind the betrayal of Aldrich Ames as well. Certainly his case seems to confirm Le Carre's suspicion that the spying game is essentially a futile exercise by which governments deceive themselves as much as their adversaries.

Ames claims the information he disclosed did not harm the nation; but if that is so, why was it secret in the first place -- except as a sort of talisman to reassure those who possessed it that they were not alone in the world?

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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