ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Turncoat CIA agent Aldrich H. Ames says the top-secret information he sold to the Russians in the worst known espionage breach in U.S. history was "really easy" for him to obtain at the agency.
"Nobody suspected what I was doing . . . and nobody protected me," Ames insisted yesterday in his first full interview since pleading guilty last month. "I never got anything I didn't have a real good reason to get. I never had to exert myself."
Ames, 52, said part of the reason he was able to traffic in classified data -- even after he was transferred out of the CIA's Soviet-East European division -- was a gradual breakdown of the highly vaunted "compartmentation" rule.
CIA officers are supposed to work in "compartments," limited to secret material only in their field of work. But he indicated the system is lax at best. He said the advent of computers and data bases, and the growth of a CIA bureaucracy in which "everybody has to coordinate with everything," has left much of the old need-to-know rule outmoded.
Ames said he "had access to a lot of things of high interest to the KGB" as chief of Soviet counterintelligence in his division in 1985 -- the year he began selling secrets over an eight-year period for $2.5 million.
He said he found reason to obtain additional sensitive data even after his transfer to anti-narcotics work in the early 1990s. But Ames said he could not disclose details of what he gave the Russians, citing ground rules for the Los Angeles Times interview established by government officials and his attorney, Plato Cacheris, who sat in on the hour-long session.
Ames, dressed in loose-fitting khaki prison overalls, appeared affable and relaxed, speaking in a rich baritone voice and displaying a broad, occasionally sardonic sense of humor. He sported a full head of dark hair, combed straight back, and a gray mustache.
He sat at a round wooden table in a small, windowless room at the Alexandria jail. He talked of his spying with great detachment, as if clinically examining the actions of a third person.
Ames noted that the closed government debriefings are zeroing in on "the kind of things I had access to." The interrogation sessions, held three days a week, are conducted by a team of FBI, CIA and other intelligence community officials who are trying to learn precisely what U.S. operations or projects Ames has compromised.
The interrogations, held at secret locations in the Washington area, "are going quite well -- they're almost collegial," Ames said.
He confessed that he often has trouble remembering exactly what he gave his Soviet and later Russian handlers, but government officials jog his memory by showing him records of his CIA career, including periods he traveled overseas when he frequently met his foreign contacts.
He is "working hard to put all the pieces together" to uphold his plea agreement to cooperate with government officials. Under that agreement, Ames received a sentence of life in prison without chance of parole and pledged complete cooperation and truthfulness in exchange for a government recommendation of leniency for his wife, Rosario, when she is sentenced in late August.
Rosario Ames, 41, whose role was described by the government as considerably smaller than her husband's, is expected to receive a term of about five years. She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of "aiding, advising and encouraging" her husband's activities.