WASHINGTON — The Central Intelligence Agency has determined that its espionage operations inside Russia in the 1980s and early 1990s were riddled with double agents who fed streams of disinformation back to the United States and were undetected for years until Soviet mole Aldrich H. Ames was arrested.
What's more, some CIA officials may have realized that their operations had been compromised by the Soviets--and failed to inform the White House or senior U.S. policy-makers of just how badly U.S. spy operations had been penetrated.
Sources said that those are some of the explosive findings of the CIA's long-awaited internal "damage assessment" of the Ames spy case, to be formally presented to Congress today. Ames spent much of his CIA career in Soviet counterintelligence.
Sources who have seen the damage assessment said that it represents a devastating blow to the CIA, and could have far-reaching consequences on Capitol Hill. The report also proves that the Ames case was more harmful to the CIA's clandestine operations than has ever been publicly reported in the media.
"It is really, really bad," said one source.
"This is not a pretty sight for the agency," added another. "It's much worse than anybody realized."
CIA Director John M. Deutch is scheduled to testify today on the damage assessment during closed hearings of both the House and Senate Intelligence committees.
They suspected last summer, well-placed intelligence sources added, that some senior officials in the agency's clandestine espionage service wanted the investigation to be short-circuited because it was potentially so explosive. Such suspicions were never proved but sources said that such concerns were prompted by the fact that "people were trying to cut the assessment off too early. We had suspicions that people in the Directorate of Operations [the CIA's clandestine espionage arm] were trying to cut short the assessment before the full magnitude of what had happened was known."
Other sources denied that any effort was mounted by senior CIA officials to limit the investigation. They pointed out that Deutch personally had made the decision to delay the release of the report to allow the damage assessment team to pursue unanswered questions.
In fact, when Deutch was told of some of the most damning findings, he urged that the scope of the investigation be broadened, the sources said.
Ames, a career CIA officer with a record for ineptitude and drunkenness, was arrested by the FBI in February, 1994, after spying for the Soviet Union--and later Russia--for nine years. As the most highly placed Soviet mole yet uncovered within the CIA, he is believed to be responsible for the deaths of at least 10 Soviets working as spies for the CIA and FBI in the mid-1980s. The CIA's failure to detect Ames for so long--when his spending habits and personal behavior probably should have set off alarm bells among the agency's spy-hunters--is now widely seen as one of the CIA's greatest intelligence failures.
The agency has been working ever since to gauge just how badly Ames hurt American intelligence efforts but agency officials have been frustrated by the murky nature of espionage--and by the broad access to top-secret information given Ames during his career. The CIA's damage assessment team was led by Richard Haver, former executive director for intelligence community affairs, who previously had headed a damage assessment effort after an earlier spy case.
In a complex and multilayered process, the CIA's damage assessment team has had to try to identify every CIA informant--an "asset" in CIA jargon--known to Ames, then painstakingly sift through the information that those assets had given to the CIA.
The assessment team then studied the resulting information to determine if it was factual, thus providing evidence of whether an asset had been turned into a double agent by the Soviets. "You track back," one source said. "You say, Ames [betrayed] the following sources and, if he gave away these sources, then the Russians would have to know about another set of sources. You figure if they knew about Mr. Smith, then they might have known about Mr. Jones. And then you try to figure out how many double agents you can identify."
To its horror, the CIA has determined that many had been turned against the CIA--either with information provided to the Soviet KGB by Ames, or through other means.
The damage assessment has not identified any other American moles within the CIA who were working with Ames. Instead, the double agents identified in the damage assessment were Russians who the CIA thought were working for the United States--but in fact were working for the KGB. They had either been compromised by Ames and then forced by the Soviets to act as double agents or had been KGB double agents all along.