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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : The Dark World of a CIA Agent Turned Mole : NIGHTMOVER: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million by David Wise ; Harper Collins $25, 357 pages


"Nightmover" may not read like a John le Carre spy novel, but it certainly offers the raw material for one.

David Wise, an expert on America's flawed espionage apparatus, turns his attention here to Aldrich Ames, the CIA "mole" who betrayed his country by selling its intelligence secrets to the Soviets--and went undetected for a decade.

Ames does indeed seem like a Le Carre character come to life. Although he was reputed to be "very, very bright"--and although his name "sounded preppy, rich, and Ivy League"--Wise explains that "Ames was, in fact, none of these."

Rather, he was a burnout case, a middle-aged man with a bad marriage and a drinking problem, a career CIA agent who found it tough to live on a government salary, an inept spy who once left a briefcase full of incriminating documents on a New York subway.

Although Wise allows Ames to make some self-serving noises about his disaffection and disillusionment with the CIA, Ames appears to concede that he acted out of simple greed when he approached the KGB and boldly offered to sell out.

"I had sort of lost control of the household budget," Ames says, "and getting from one paycheck to the next was getting increasingly difficult."

To the author's credit, "Nightmover" is framed in sturdy journalistic prose, and Wise never stoops to "novelizing" his tale. Indeed, Wise is so disciplined that he even pauses to give us the weight in pounds of the secret documents that Ames smuggled out of CIA headquarters, and he lists the six liver enzyme tests that were performed on a blood sample taken from Ames after his arrest.

But Wise--who has written a few spy novels of his own--is also gifted with a novelist's eye for detail. He tells us, for example, that Ames was always paid in cash--$20,000 to $50,000 at a crack--and his thoughtful paymasters once packed the money inside a box of Cuban cigars.

"Ames thought the cigars were not top quality," Wise observes. "He had no complaints about the cash."

Wise's book is enriched and enlivened by his intimate knowledge of spycraft, his expertise on the troubled history of the CIA, and his insights into the knotted politics of international espionage, all of which are on display in "Nightmover."

We learn, for example, why a "bug" is actually called a "block" in CIA jargon, how the habit of going without "perceptible underwear" was used to "punish" a female station chief, why the CIA alcoholism counseling staff was not troubled by the off-hour excesses of Rick Ames.

"I've got people who sit in the parking lot at headquarters, drinking," one counselor declared. "I've got one lady who filled her windshield wiper dispenser with vodka and rigged the line so the hose comes inside the car."

"Nightmover" is, among other things, an indictment of the CIA itself: "The Aldrich Ames case," Wise concludes, "reveals that the CIA, often portrayed as a wily covert manipulator of global events, is in fact a tired bureaucracy, living in the past, wearing blinders, and deeply flawed."

At times, Wise seems to betray his own sympathy for Ames, and he asks us to entertain the notion that Ames was a troubled soul who approached the KGB because "he wanted to belong," as if selling the secrets of one's country in exchange for cash was a way of "fulfilling some deep psychological need."

"I simply delivered myself to them," says Ames in an effort to explain himself. "It was . . . a switching of loyalties."

But Wise may be too kind when it comes to Ames, who was merely flattering himself when he spoke those words. Unlike other famous spies--the Rosenbergs, for example, or Jonathan Pollard--Ames acted out of greed, not true belief, and "Nightmover" allows us to see that the very word "loyalty" had no meaning at all for him.

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