WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors and defense attorneys for accused spies Aldrich H. Ames and his wife have signed an agreement extending the time for grand jury charges until May 13 in a clear sign that negotiations on a plea agreement are nearing conclusion, it was learned Friday.
A major factor spurring the government to bargain for a quick resolution of the case, rather than waiting at least four to five months for the outcome of a trial, is an urgent need for the CIA to go forward with investigations to assess damage that the Ameses reportedly did to agency operations and to American interests.
Those assessments are being held up out of concern that any paperwork created before trial might be obtained by defense attorneys and used in framing a defense, sources said.
"We're in the hands of the legal beagles," one intelligence official complained. "We're being told by the lawyers not to create any documents that would be germane to the legal proceedings."
Further, until the damage assessment is complete, the agency cannot begin making changes necessary to correct problems created by the alleged security breach. Congressional oversight committees have also been pushing the agency to complete the review.
The Ameses, who were arrested Feb. 21, originally were to face a formal grand jury indictment by March 23 under terms of the federal Speedy Trial Act, which requires prosecutors to return an indictment within 30 days of an arrest. But defense attorneys agreed to a 30-day extension, which was to end this week, to allow them to obtain security clearances and begin reviewing top-secret documents that could figure in a trial of their clients.
However, Aldrich Ames signaled his willingness early this month to cooperate with investigators and disclose the details of his reported eight years of spying--including what help he may have received from confederates inside the agency--on the condition that prosecutors recommend leniency for his Colombian-born wife, Rosario.
The length of the new extension, three weeks rather than another 30 days, indicates a plea agreement is near, one knowledgeable source said. "This (the deal) could all be worked out within the next week to 10 days," the source said.
Ames, 52, is said to realize that he has no chance of negotiating leniency for himself, considering the damage investigators believe the 31-year CIA veteran caused American intelligence interests and his possible complicity in the deaths of 10 U.S. intelligence operatives in Russia.
In return for his guilty plea and full cooperation, Ames is willing to accept a Justice Department recommendation for a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole, the same maximum penalty he could get if convicted of espionage after a full trial, the sources said.
Negotiations in recent days have centered on the prison term for Rosario Ames, 41, who is also willing to plead guilty as part of any agreement, according to the sources. Defense attorneys want the government to commit to recommending no more than a five-year sentence for her, but so far prosecutors are unwilling to accept a term that light, people familiar with the discussions said.
Defense attorneys Plato Cacheris and William B. Cummings declined to answer questions about the negotiations. Justice Department officials also refused comment.
Rosario Ames has been pictured in the government's court documents as a woman who often pushed her husband to carry out his espionage tasks with great care and helped him deposit tens of thousands of dollars in cash payments from the Russians in U.S. banks.
But the government has produced no evidence so far that she engaged in espionage more directly, and she insisted in a Times interview earlier this week that "I never worked for the Soviets."
Aldrich Ames allegedly was paid at least $2.5 million by the Soviets and later the Russians to spy for them since 1985--an amount that the FBI has termed extraordinarily high. During much of this period he was chief of Soviet counterintelligence in the CIA's Soviet-East European division.
But even after Ames was transferred to anti-narcotics work he continued to obtain top-secret documents in areas outside that jurisdiction, according to court evidence. This has increased suspicions that he was assisted, either wittingly or unwittingly, by CIA colleagues whose identities he could furnish if he agrees to cooperate.