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Ames Spy Case: Don't Blame the Russians

Given the chance, the US would have paid handsomely to get similar undercover information on Moscow's doings

By Pat M. Holt. Pat M. Holtformer chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is the author of a forthcoming book on the US intelligence community. / March 3, 1994



THE arrest of Aldrich Ames on charges of spying for Russia has set off complaints, including some from people who ought to know better, about Russian perfidy in post-cold-war euphoria and glasnost.

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The complaints are misdirected. We have plenty of reason to be upset, but not at the Russians. The appropriate focus is on Mr. Ames and his wife, Maria del Rosario Casas Ames, who has been charged with him.

Let it be said up front that discussion of this case must respect the ancient principle that the Ameses are considered innocent until proven guilty, with the proof strong enough to convince a jury of their peers beyond a reasonable doubt. That is a degree of protection they would not have in many other countries and certainly not in Russia, even in post-communist Russia. We also should keep in mind that the Federal Bureau of Investigation saying something is so does not make it so; the FBI has been known to exaggerate. But if even a little of what the FBI says about the Ameses ultimately proves true, this is mind-boggling espionage.

The salient fact about the case is that it involves an American (Mr. Ames allegedly was the principal actor) spying against the United States. We do not yet know whether the Russians recruited Ames or whether he volunteered his services. It doesn't matter. Nobody forced him into whatever relationship he allegedly had with the Russians; the evidence points to greed as the motive (he supposedly got more than $2.5 million over eight or nine years). Even if he had been blackmailed, a CIA officer with Ames's experience certainly knew that the agency has effective ways to protect its employees from blackmail and is happy to do so. So whatever Ames did, he did freely.

And if the FBI is even close to correct, what he did was betray his country.

What did the Russians do? They paid Ames for the information he is charged with bringing them. It was valuable (they certainly paid enough for it) on two counts: It told them which Russians were untrustworthy, and it told them what else Americans were trying to do to them.

Given a chance, the CIA would certainly pay a Russian intelligence officer handsomely for the same information. It also would pay a similarly situated informant in almost any other country. Indeed, it has done so, though it may not have reaped the same rich harvest that the Russians apparently got.

Americans who get upset over Russian behavior with the Ameses are either naive or hypocritical. Sure, US-Russian relations are better than they used to be, and Russia is getting economic aid from the US. But Israel was getting aid from the US, too, and that did not stop the Israelis from paying Jonathan Jay Pollard to steal secret documents for them to copy.

If he really did what the FBI says he did, Ames is the real culprit, just as Mr. Pollard (who also was helped by his wife) was the real culprit in the 1986 Israeli spy case. Our anger and frustration can be more constructively directed toward how the CIA's and FBI's combined counterintelligence and security procedures did not detect the problem sooner.

Ames violated one of the first principles of successful espionage: He abruptly upgraded his lifestyle and spent money conspicuously. That should have set off alarm bells for any counterintelligence officer. And it should not have sufficed for him to suggest that his wife's family had money in Colombia. Surely the CIA station in Bogota could have checked that out.

And what about Mrs. Ames? While she was cultural attache in the Colombian embassy in Mexico City she allowed herself to be recruited as a paid CIA informant. Mr. Ames was in the CIA's Mexico City station at the same time.

Two years later, in 1985, the pair married in Washington while the CIA apparently looked the other way. The agency has been known to reject requests from officers to marry foreign nationals when it feared their families might be used as instruments of pressure. Here was a CIA bride who had already sold out one country being accepted into the bosom of the agency's family. True, she had sold out to the CIA, but all that says is that she was untrustworthy: If she would let the CIA pay her, she would let somebody else pay her.

During the cold war, many spies were unmasked on both sides. Rarely was much of a public fuss made. Life - and espionage - went on. For those who thought the end of the cold war would change things, disillusionment undoubtedly comes hard. But life - and espionage - will continue. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.