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Ames Joins Ranks of TV Spies

November 27, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

A mole is a deep-penetration agent so called because he burrows deep into the fabric of Western imperialism . . .

--British agent Ricky Tarr in "Tinker,

Tailor, Soldier, Spy" by John le Carre

*

In 1985, CIA man Aldrich H. Ames entered the Soviet Embassy in Washington offering to go on the KGB payroll. Nine years later, he entered the federal penitentiary in Allenwood, Pa., for life.

Now comes a movie explaining how he got there.

Showtime's "Aldrich Ames: Traitor Within," airing Sunday, is quality work that holds your interest. But . . .

Oh, for the good old days of Cold War espionage, when spies were spies, KGB bogeymen wore their mystique like hero medals and the Brits were producing nifty TV scripts about hunting down that molesome foursome of Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt.

It was a time when British TV renderings of John le Carre's "Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy" and "Smiley's People" were superbly on target, presenting Alec Guinness at his minimalist best as a bland but formidable British spy chief whose Soviet counterpart, Karla, loomed ever ominously.

Le Carre's semibiographical "A Perfect Spy" also fared well on TV, as did Ian Holm playing his own suspenseful East-West games as the burned-out British operative in "Game, Set and Match."

These were complex, enigmatic characters, as was perhaps the greatest of them all, Sam Neill's ruthlessly pragmatic hero in "Reilly: Ace of Spies," a miniseries about an earlier real-life British superagent thought to have been iced by the Bolsheviks in 1925, and around whom fact and fable have thickened into seductive legend.

That was another TV millennium, in effect, one that affirmed that when it comes to the spy genre, the Brits have been much more state of the art than Americans.

"Traitor Within" is closer in tone to "Family of Spies: The Walker Spy Ring," a 1990 two-parter on CBS about John Anthony Walker Jr., an evil, depraved former U.S. Navy man who recruited his son, brother and a friend to help him feed highly classified information to the Soviets from 1968 to 1985.

Walker's "family business," as it was known, was uncovered and dismantled about the same time that Ames--who headed counterintelligence in the CIA's Soviet division--was booting up his own one-man enterprise that was to earn him some $3 million from the Soviets. Ames had access to highly secret CIA espionage operations, and delivered to Moscow the names of the agency's moles inside the Soviet Union, ensuring their executions.

Although Walker was much more social and gregarious than Ames, the two spies were alike in some ways, namely in being greedy, cold and, it appears, utterly without souls.

Following the Ames movie, Showtime will show a brief prison interview with him, in which he displays little remorse about causing the deaths of up to 10 CIA agents. Then comes a somewhat dry, largely critical documentary about the agency's checkered past that alludes briefly to the highly damaging Ames episode.

"The good news is that you caught that spy," former CIA Director John Deutch says in the documentary. "The bad news, of course, is that you had a culture that permitted that spy to be present so long."

That seemingly myopic CIA culture of the time--and the sheer ordinariness of Ames, as played persuasively by Timothy Hutton--are what make "Traitor Within" so boggling to watch. And from start to finish, it is just that.

Ames here dotes on his young son and is ever-obliging toward his demanding, strong-willed Colombian wife, Rosario (Elizabeth Pena), appearing on the surface to be a typical "Honey, I'm home" husband. Behind a placid, scholarly, owlish, inscrutable exterior, though, he is seething.

Michael Burton's teleplay immediately zooms to the heart of Ames' motivation, from his point of view: After 20 years with the CIA, still mid-level, still passed over for promotion, still underappreciated and, perhaps most critically, still deeply in debt with no panaceas in sight for him and his family.

Cut now to Ames walking into the Soviet Embassy and selling the names of three CIA moles in Moscow for $50,000.

It won't be long before he and Rosario are living lavishly, paying cash for a $549,000 house, owning two Jaguars and making other swanky purchases, all of which, you would think, over time, would have tipped off the CIA that something was amiss, given that Ames' annual pay never topped $70,000.

The Soviet Union and the chain-smoking Ames begin crumbling in this movie almost simultaneously. Ames' former KGB handler, Viktor Cherkashin, has insisted in interviews that a Soviet defector or CIA mole deep inside the KGB apparatus had to have been responsible for fingering Ames, so well-hidden was he behind layers of subterfuge. However, "Traitor Within" follows the U.S. line--that a tenacious probe by FBI and CIA counterintelligence over a number of years led to Ames' arrest.

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