WASHINGTON — A veteran CIA official, who had far-ranging access to intelligence secrets, and his wife were charged Tuesday with spying for the former Soviet Union and later for the Russian Federation in return for $1.5 million.
With the arrests, Aldrich Hazen Ames, 52, who served for two years as chief of the CIA's Soviet counterintelligence branch, becomes the highest level agent to be accused of being a "mole" while still working for the agency. His wife, Maria Del Rosario Casas Ames, 41, once was a paid CIA source in Mexico City.
While President Clinton described the espionage case as "very serious," Secretary of State Warren Christopher told the senior diplomat at the Russian Embassy here that the United States was "outraged" and suggested that the Russians should recall at least one of their intelligence officers as a sign of contrition.
Vladimir I. Chkhikvitchvill, deputy chief of Russia's diplomatic mission, had no reply, according to officials at the State Department.
Other U.S. officials said that they hoped the Russians would respond quickly with a gesture that would bring the episode to an end and avoid damaging U.S.-Russian relations.
Even so, U.S. officials said the damage to American intelligence could be devastating.
"He had access to the most sensitive data of all," a former senior intelligence official at the CIA said. "He would have had all of the operational details in terms of the identities of our people there (in the former Soviet Union) and how we went about our business.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, likened the potential impact to that caused by notorious spies John A. Walker Jr. and Ronald Pelton. Walker, a Navy warrant officer, and Pelton, a National Security Agency official, gave crucial U.S. defense information to the Soviets in the last decade.
Authorities said that Ames and his wife continued their spying activities until they were arrested by FBI agents Monday. Ames was taken into custody on his way to work, while his wife was arrested at their Arlington, Va., home.
They were arraigned Tuesday on federal charges of conspiracy to commit espionage. If convicted, they could face maximum sentences of life in prison.
According to an affidavit unsealed in federal court in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday, Ames met with intelligence officers of the Soviet KGB and its successor, the SVRR, beginning in 1985 and provided them with classified information on CIA operations and personnel. That information allegedly included the identity and code name of a CIA source inside the Soviet counterintelligence division in 1990.
Ames and his wife are accused of using "dead drops" in the Washington area--prearranged locations where agents drop off material and pick up payments--and "signal sites"--a prearranged place where agents communicate simple messages--without ever meeting face-to-face with the Russian contacts.
The Ames were arrested after extensive physical, video and electronic surveillance, officials said. U.S. agents tapped their telephones, rummaged through their trash, examined ribbons and disks from their home computer and printer and followed the couple to various sites.
The federal complaint claims that the Ames, who have a 5-year-old son, deposited more than $1.5 million in payments from the Russians in banks here and abroad, including two Swiss bank accounts.
Ames earned an annual CIA salary of $69,843. Financial records showed his take-home salary totaled $336,164 from April, 1985, through last November. Over the same period, however, records show that he and his wife spent at least $1,397,300.
Their purchases included a residence in a prosperous Arlington neighborhood. They paid $540,000 in cash for a home there in 1989--a transaction that caught the attention of real estate agents in the Washington suburb. Other expenditures, according to the affidavit by FBI Agent Leslie G. Wiser Jr., included a $25,000 down payment on a 1992 Jaguar, $99,000 in home improvements, $165,000 in stock and security purchases, $25,000 in Georgetown University tuition, where Mrs. Ames is a part-time student, and $455,000 in credit card purchases.
Ames also owns two condominium apartments and a farm in Colombia, his wife's birthplace, according to the affidavit.
Counterintelligence experts expressed incredulity over Ames' spending habits and Skip Brandon, who retired in January as acting assistant director of the FBI's intelligence division, indicated that they were part of the "mosaic" of information that led authorities to suspect him.
Brandon noted that the financial affairs of those holding government security clearances are reviewed every three to five years and that this review has grown more systematic and careful in recent years.