LAST month's arrest of Aldrich and Maria Ames for alleged spying for Russia has shown more about US attitudes toward intelligence activities than it has about the activities themselves. To much of the world, aspects of the US reaction must seem unreasonable, even bizarre.
Americans are ambivalent on the subject of espionage. Many consider it immoral. Friends do not spy on friends, although the case of Jonathan Pollard's spying for Israel suggests there are exceptions. Yet some of those, especially in Congress, who criticize the act of espionage, would be among the first to condemn the US intelligence community if it failed to have sufficient information on a major international development, whether in friendly or unfriendly territory.
The uproar over the Ames case ignored that the Russians, in their enlistment of Ames, hoped to roll back American spying in Russia. Evidence clearly suggests they were paying unusually large sums of money to learn the identity of Russians working for the US. It is difficult to argue that such counterintelligence activity is not a legitimate function of a state. Yet Americans seem to believe that espionage against Russia is justified and that it is an unfriendly act for Russia to arrest US spies.
The US public and Congress immediately suggested that Russia should cease spying as a condition for receiving assistance. Not only does this argument ignore potential US benefits from Russian reform, but it also introduces the idea that foreign assistance should be used to indemnify against spying. In the talks with Russia on the dismantling of nuclear weapons, would the US have ceased all intelligence activities in Moscow as the price of agreement?
The US also sent CIA officials to seek Russian help in the Ames investigation. They were rebuffed. This, too, was seen as an unfriendly act; yet how would the US have reacted to a Russian request for US assistance in the investigation of a Russian charged with spying for Washington?
In Washington, the issue immediately became political. Although Ames's activities reportedly started in 1985, in a Republican administration, congressional members of that party have now seized on the charges to attack the Democratic administration's policies toward Russia. Though much of Ames's cooperation with the Russians went back to a pre-Yeltsin period, the Republicans pointed to the allegations as signs of White House naivete toward Moscow. No GOP legislator noted that it would be difficult for politically weakened President Boris Yeltsin - given normal Russian paranoia about US intentions - to oppose protecting the nation against espionage.
Ames's activities, if they prove to be as charged, represent a serious breach in US intelligence activities. But the problem is in Washington, not Moscow. It is in the US capital that it must be determined how so serious a lapse could have gone undetected for so long. Beyond that, the White House has moved within the rules of the spying game in expelling a Russian intelligence officer; the Russians have expelled an American counterpart. The administration also correctly insisted that Russia abide by an agreement on the limitation of the number, in each country, of declared intelligence officers.
To tie aid for Russian reform or for the dismantling of their nuclear capability to this US security failure makes no sense. And it is naive to assume, given the uncertainty in Russia and the history of mutual suspicion, that neither the US nor Russia feels it necessary to collect secret information on the other. It is equally naive to suggest that the US could pressure Moscow into an agreement to cease spying without reciprocal demands from the Russians.