Double agents riddled CIA's Soviet net Disinformation went undetected for years, agency probe finds

October 31, 1995|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The CIA has determined that its espionage operations inside the Soviet Union and Russia in the 1980s and early 1990s were riddled with double agents who fed streams of disinformation back to the United States, going undetected for years until after Soviet mole Aldrich H. Ames was arrested.

What's more, some CIA officials may have realized that their operations had been compromised by the Soviets -- and failed to inform the White House or senior U.S. policy makers of just how badly U.S. spy operations had been penetrated.

Sources say those are some of the explosive findings of the CIA's long-awaited internal "damage assessment" of the Ames spy case, to be formally presented to Congress today.

Sources who have seen the damage assessment said that it represents a devastating blow to the CIA and could have far-reaching consequences on Capitol Hill.

The report also proves that the Ames case was more harmful to the CIA's clandestine operations than has been publicly reported in the media.

"It is really, really bad," said one source. John M. Deutch, the director of central intelligence, is scheduled to testify today on the damage assessment during closed hearings of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Well-placed intelligence sources add that they suspected last summer that some senior officials in the agency's clandestine espionage service wanted the investigation short-circuited because it was potentially so explosive. But Mr. Deutch urged that the scope of the investigation be broadened.

Ames, a career CIA officer with a record for ineptitude and drunkenness, was arrested by the FBI in February 1994 after spying for the Soviets -- and later for Russia -- for nine years. As the most highly placed Soviet mole yet uncovered within the CIA, he is believed to be responsible for the deaths of at least 10 Soviets working as spies for the CIA and FBI in the mid-1980s.

The CIA's failure to detect Ames for so long -- when his spending habits and personal behavior should have set off alarm bells among the agency's spy-hunters -- is now widely seen as one of the agency's greatest intelligence failures.

The agency has been working ever since to gauge just how badly Ames hurt American intelligence efforts, but agency officials have been frustrated by the murky nature of espionage -- and by the access to top secret information given Ames during his career.

In a painstakingly complex and multilayered process, the CIA's damage assessment team has had to try to identify every CIA informant Ames knew, and then go back and sift through the information that those spies gave to the CIA.

The assessment team then had to study that information to see if it was fact or fiction -- which would then provide evidence of whether that asset had been turned into a double agent by the Soviets.

"You track back," said one source. "You say: Ames gave away [betrayed] the following sources, and if he gave away these sources, then the Russians would have to know about another set of sources. You figure if they knew about Mr. Smith, then they might have known about Mr. Jones. And then you try to figure out how many double agents you can identify."

The assessment has not identified any other American moles within the CIA who were working with Ames.

Instead, the double agents identified in the damage assessment were Russians who the CIA thought were working for the United States -- but in fact were working for the KGB.

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