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Russian Informant Credited With Unmasking CIA Spy

October 02, 1994|WALTER PINCUS | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Information given to the FBI by a former Communist intelligence officer allowed its agents to zero in on confessed spy Aldrich H. Ames in May, 1993, leading to his arrest nine months later, according to sources familiar with the investigation and the CIA inspector general's report on the Ames case.

Although there have been hints since Ames' arrest in February that an informant had fingered him, the description in the 400-page classified report by CIA Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz marks the first time it has been acknowledged officially.

One reason for the secrecy, according to government officials, is the sensitivity of the individual who was the source of the information.

"The FBI caught Ames after a Russian gave a description that came so close that they knew it was Ames," said a CIA official with knowledge of the affair. "If the FBI had not gotten that information and opened a criminal case, Ames (might) still be driving his Jaguar into the CIA parking lot."

Ames, responsible for the worst security breach in CIA history, began spying while working in a sensitive office handling counterintelligence work against Moscow. He betrayed to the Soviets 36 U.S- and allied-paid agents and, eventually, more than 55 intelligence operations over nine years.

Until the Russian informant appeared, the CIA's hunt for the "mole" in its midst had been hampered by internal failures and bureaucratic wrangling, detailed in the report on Ames by Hitz and outlined by him to Congress last week.

The CIA effort began in 1986, died in 1988 and was revived in 1991 with participation of the FBI. That joint effort was only "gradually (beginning) to show results" before the information from the Russian informant was obtained, Hitz told Congress.

The informant's statement was used by the FBI in May, 1993, to get Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to sign a national security warrant that authorized review of Ames' bank, telephone and travel records without his knowledge or approval.

In June or July, 1993, again using information developed initially from the informant, the bureau went to a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for authorization to carry out secret electronic surveillance of Ames through his telephone and his computer, according to sources familiar with the case.

Computer and written notes Ames sent to the KGB going back to 1990, as well as incriminating phone and home conversations produced by that surveillance and searches, provided the basic evidence against Ames. That evidence made it almost certain he would be convicted and led to his negotiating a guilty plea.

A government counterintelligence official confirmed the FBI got important information in the spring of 1993, but declined to say how it was received. It "didn't name Ames, but it was so specific that he became the focus in a matter of days," he said.

The 1993 information to the FBI "really got us going," the official said. "Without it we would have kept going at a very, very slow pace, narrowing down the list of suspects."

Neither the CIA nor the FBI would comment on the informant.

Disclosure of the FBI's informant and his key role in catching Ames provides support for the decision by the White House and Congress earlier this year to give the FBI new authority to pursue counterintelligence cases involving CIA personnel.

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