Two women who brought down a traitor

Little-known CIA agents tell how they exposed the treachery of Aldrich Ames

December 17, 2012|Susan Reimer

Jeanne Vertefeuille and Sandra Grimes could be George Smiley's people.

They were recruited on their college campuses by the Central Intelligence Agency during the height of the Cold War. Jeanne wanted travel and adventure. Sandy didn't know much about the CIA; she just needed a job.

Jeanne and Sandy. That's how they refer to themselves in the book they co-authored, "Circle of Treason."

It tells the story of these two women — Jeanne worked her way up from the equivalent of the steno pool, while Sandy was immediately in the Soviet division (and over her head) because she could speak Russian — and how they brought down the most devastating traitor in the history of the agency: Aldrich Ames.

Their meticulous investigation and combing of records also revealed losses that could not have come from Mr. Ames. They pointed more to the FBI and eventually led to a traitor in its midst, Robert Hanssen, who spied for the Soviets for 22 years, doing damage that more than rivaled that done by Mr. Ames. Both men are serving life terms for espionage. Those they betrayed were executed.

"Circle of Treason" is the first book about the decade-long mole hunt not written by academics or journalists but by members of the team that uncovered the spying of Messrs. Ames and Hanssen.

The book will never be made into a sexy, high-tech splash like "Zero Dark Thirty." And it doesn't have the noir ambience of John le Carre's tales of Mr. Smiley, the sad, little man at the center of his British spy novels.

Written from memory and published after bruising go-arounds with CIA censors (despite the agency's willingness to have the public know about its success), what it does have is the stark prose of those at the center of the biggest mole hunt in U.S. history — chilling and riveting and matter of fact.

The CIA had been losing operatives in the Soviet Union at a frightening rate in the mid-1980s, and the agency could not figure out why. Was there a mole? Had its communications been breached?

Jeanne, by virtue of her time in Finland on the doorstep of the Soviet Union, had been asked to head the task force to find out. Struggling against bureaucracy and intransigent officials with their theories right out of "Spy vs. Spy," she hadn't been successful. So married to the agency that she might indeed have been a character out of le Carre, she was also facing mandatory retirement.

Sandy, a decade younger, was looking to get out of the business. She had two rambunctious teenage daughters at home and felt her family had given up enough for the agency — a mother who would go in on Saturday morning to read overnight cables and then come home to run roughshod over weekend chores.

It was 1991, and boss Paul Redmond asked the women if they'd like one more crack at finding out why they had lost at least eight, perhaps a dozen, Soviet agents to torture and execution. Men they knew and had protected for years, decades. They agreed.

Clues are clues because they do not reveal themselves in conventional ways. An expensive gift of a scarf. Fancy window-covering. Outlandish answers to interview questions, with stories of open safes and night watchmen.

Jeanne asked the team members to list their top suspects. Mr. Ames got the most votes in the straw poll. Sandy had listed him No. 1. And the FBI (the CIA has no power to arrest) rolled up Mr. Ames and his grasping Colombian wife, Rosario, in 1994.

Sandy sat recently for an interview in the offices of the Naval Institute on the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. She is a trim, youthful grandmother of four with a blond bob and expressive hands. Jeanne, who became a legend over 60 years with the CIA and lectured and advised the agency until this summer, is ill and couldn't be there. Their pride in their work, masked by their straightforward account, is evident in Sandy's animated retelling of a 30-year-old story from an astonishing memory. You don't leave the agency, after all, with boxes of files.

Both women live in Virginia, talk daily after "Jeopardy" to compare scores and have dinner once a month. But Jeanne spent a lot of time at her house in West Virginia, too, and they collaborated mostly by email for three years. They spent another three years battling the agency to get the book printed.

The Soviets had Mr. Ames and the tortured testimony of all those he betrayed, they argued. What secrets could be left? When approval came for the book, they were joyful.

"When we started the mole hunt, we knew it had to be a co-worker, someone we all knew," Sandy said. "And we never kept it a secret that we were looking for human penetration."

Even so, Mr. Ames seemed blithely unconcerned and never tried to assume a low profile. He was dismissive of the women, thinking they would never find him out. He even offered them his advice on how to pursue the mole.

"While he respected us, he was relieved that it was two women," Sandy said.

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