WASHINGTON — THE cold war is over. But the Spy War is continuing - as this week's arrest of a Central Intelligence Agency official and his wife on espionage charges amply demonstrates.
Though activities may have been somewhat scaled back, intelligence agencies of both the East and West still recruit agents, troll for information, and, in general, compete against each other. Friendly relations are no guarantee of a spying truce. Last year, the CIA warned 49 defense-industry firms in the United States that the agency had been targeted by French intelligence.
The rules of the game require outrage when a spy is uncovered, however, and American officials are treating the arrest of Aldrich Ames and his wife, Rosario, as a very serious matter. The couple is alleged to have spied for the Soviet Union and Russia since 1985.
``We don't like it one bit,'' said White House spokeswoman Dee Dee Myers.
One sign of improved United States-Russian relations was that no Russian diplomats linked to the Ames's activities were summarily booted out of the country, as they might have been in the 1980s. Instead, US officials suggested that the Russians might recall several of their embassy employees on their own, as a sign of atonement.
The bitterness of the US reaction undoubtedly reflects a feeling that the scale of the Ames case goes beyond the bounds of what might be acceptable espionage in today's world.
While not among the CIA's highest officers, Mr. Ames held important and sensitive posts that gave him access to a wide range of information. From 1983 to 1985, for instance, he was chief of the Soviet branch of CIA counterintelligence and, thus, in a position to warn agents that the US was on their trail.
Experts said the Ames case could be at least as damaging as the infamous ring run by Navy warrant officer John Walker in the 1970s and early '80s. Given the nature of Ames's access, he may have been able to betray US agents in the Soviet Union, causing them, in turn, to be fed information or turned into double agents by the then-KGB.
``All human intelligence from the Soviet Union after 1985 has to be assumed to be bad ... all of it,'' says Angelo Codevilla, a former senior staffer on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
A former high-ranking CIA official who served in the mid-1980s says it is true that officials will now have to carefully scrutinize their record of intelligence from human spies. But he suggests that the overall security impact of Ames's alleged spying will be small.
Human intelligence from the former Soviet Union ``didn't amount to much anyway,'' this offical says. ``It was never a major factor in the analysis.''
As the Soviet Union crumbled, CIA estimates continued to reflect a view that President Mikhail Gorbachev would be able to hold things together. It is unlikely that this was the result of tainted information fed by the Soviets, the former CIA official says. Instead, the official claims that it reflected the political positions of then-CIA chief William Casey and his supporters, who refused to believe that the Evil Empire could be no more.
Mr. Casey ``needed them as an enemy,'' the official says.
A more serious implication of the Ames case might be that US counterintelligence - the ability to detect spies in one's midst - is weak.
If allegations ring true, Ames managed to pass lie-detector tests and move easily in the CIA's highest circles without detection for more than six years. Yet, throughout that time, Ames lived well beyond his means on the more than $1.5 million he is accused of accepting from the Kremlin. He flaunted Jaguars and luxury housing he could never afford on his government salary, while maintaining records of his correspondence with spymasters on his home computer. For a spy to call attention to himself in such a manner reveals rank incompetence.
``Ordinary stupidity will outlast the sands of Saudi Arabia,'' Mr. Codevilla says.
Since the days of ex-head of counterintelligence James Angleton, a famously suspicious man, the CIA has practiced complicated precautions against intelligence penetration, including lie-detector tests and compartmentalization of information.
But there is no real culture of counterintelligence, Codevilla explains. It is not a CIA career field, but an assignment officers are transferred through - as Ames himself was.
Codevilla charges that this reflects a residual feeling that the CIA is impenetrable. ``The very nature of a counterintelligence job has been unacceptable in our Lake Wobegon kind of agency, where everybody is supposed to be above average,'' he says.
He suggests that the US needs to completely reorganize its intelligence effort, with a much smaller clandestine spying operation coupled with an adequate counterintelligence arm.