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Ames Affair Blurs the Circles Within Circles of Intelligence : Spies: A Soviet agent operating within the CIA now forces analysts to retrace many treacherous passages down the hall of mirrors.

March 27, 1994|Thomas Powers | Thomas Powers, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the author of "The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA" (Knopf)

SOUTH ROYALTON, VT. — It was Soviet fears of a U.S. first strike in the early 1980s that apparently led to their recruitment of Aldrich Hazen Ames, a 30-year veteran of the CIA's clandestine services, nearly a decade ago. The arrest of Ames and his Columbian-born wife, Maria del Rosario Casas, in February revealed a long hemorrhage of secrets--the worst by far, if allegations are true, in the agency's 45-year history.

The aggressive buildup of U.S. nuclear arms early in President Ronald Reagan's first term, combined with Reagan's characterization of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," evidently convinced the KGB that "the threat of outbreak of a nuclear war has reached dangerous proportions." The result was a blizzard of top-secret memos from Moscow to agents in the field--to gather information on U.S. military preparations and, above all, to recruit well-placed spies.

Instructions to field officers in November, 1983, from Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, who was later KGB chief from 1988 until the failed hard-line coup attempt of 1991, ended the Soviet intelligence agency's long-fabled parsimony in rewarding agents. He urged "bolder use of material incentives." The new policy, described in a collection of documents published by the KBG defector Oleg A. Gordievsky and his British co-author, helps explain the unprecedented sums allegedly paid to Ames beginning in May, 1985--more than $2.5 million, according to FBI and CIA investigators. By way of contrast, the KGB paid only $3,000 for the super-secret technical manual describing the KH-11 spy satellite, purchased from William Kampiles, a disgruntled former CIA officer, in the 1970s.

The KH-11 was a mainstay of the CIA's system of reconnaissance satellites, used to keep track of Soviet missile deployments and other military preparations. The KGB's possession of the manual for more than a year before the CIA even discovered it was missing told the Soviets just what the Americans could see from space--and, therefore, how to hide whatever they wanted to keep secret.

Loss of the satellite manual, among other things, convinced some U.S. intelligence analysts that the Soviets had embarked on a major, long-term effort to deceive the United States about the capabilities, and especially the accuracy, of its missile force.

This, in turn, helped prompt Reagan and his national-security advisers to embark on the strategic buildup that so alarmed the KGB in the early 1980s and led to the agent-recruiting frenzy that eventually landed Ames. He has been charged with betraying more secrets of greater importance than any other spy in U.S. history--with the possible exception of Benedict Arnold, who attempted to betray the fortress at West Point to the British during the Revolutionary War. This tortured circle of action and reaction is characteristic of the eternal intelligence war that is business-as-usual in relations among sovereign states.

What made Ames worth $2.5 million, when the KH-11 manual commanded only $3,000? The answer again comes from one of the documents spirited off by the KGB defector Gordievsky. "It must always be remembered," said a report of a January, 1984, meeting of leading KGB officials in Moscow, "that the chief means of ensuring that the security of intelligence operations is protected is, and has always been, agent penetration of the other side's intelligence and counterintelligence agencies."

This was no sudden enthusiasm of the KGB but a guiding principle of Soviet intelligence efforts since the Russian Revolution in 1917. The arrest of Ames simply made the CIA the most recent in a long line of red-faced Western intelligence agencies to suffer the public humiliation of penetration in the inner-most of inner sanctums. Ames' most sensitive post was chief of the counterintelligence branch of the Central Intelligence Agency's Soviet-East European division, from 1983 through 1985. The British in the 1950s, with the Harold Kim Philby case, and the West Germans in the 1960s, with the Hans Felfe case, both experienced the same shock: discovery that a chief of counterintelligence for operations targeting the Soviet Union had been working for the other side.

What the Soviets got from Ames was a list of names--at least 10, according to an FBI affidavit--of Soviet agents working for the CIA between 1985 and 1990. Five had been assigned to the Soviet Embassy or consular offices in the United States, where they had been recruited by the FBI--a fact that helps explain the current Washington rumor about smoldering resentment between the FBI and the CIA. One, code-named "Prologue," was himself a counterintelligence officer for the KGB's Second Chief Directorate, allegedly betrayed by Ames in December, 1990. Another, code-named "Motorboat," was an officer of an East European security service said to have been betrayed by Ames in 1989.

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