NIGHTMOVER: HOW ALDRICH AMES SOLD THE CIA TO THE KGB FOR $4.6 MILLION
By David Wise
356 pps., $25
SELLOUT: ALDRICH AMES AND THE CORRUPTION OF THE CIA
By James Adams
322 pps., $23.95
BETRAYAL: THE STORY OF ALDRICH AMES, AN AMERICAN SPY
By Tim Weiner, David Johnston, and Neil Lewis
Random House, 306 pps., $25
KILLER SPY: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE FBI'S PURSUIT AND CAPTURE OF ALDRICH AMES, AMERICA'S DEADLIEST SPY
By Peter Maas
Warner Books 243 pps., $21.95
In a publishers' race for sales, four brand new books on the Aldrich Ames spy case - arguably the worst disaster in the CIA's troubled history - are competing for public attention.
The timing is perfection itself, as the FBI builds a case against the Oklahoma City bombers, as it seeks new powers through the Counterterrorism Act, and as a tough, new CIA director, John Deutch, purges its old-boy fraternity.
Which book tells the most, explains the most, and does it most gracefully?
The question is less one of data, much of which good legwork can uncover, than of insight, interpretation, and understanding of the strange world in which Aldrich Ames operated, and why he cooperated with the KGB.
Far in the lead is "Nightmover," a thoughtful and smoothly written account by that old pro, David Wise, who helped raise questions about the CIA with "The Invisible Government," back in 1961. Ranking second is James Adams' thoughtful and thorough "Sellout," which is less focused, but thick with data about Ames and his pursuers. The backstretch holds "Betrayal," a conventional, uninspired narrative by three New York Times reporters. And last comes "Killer Spy," Peter Maas's quick, slick glorification of FBI counterspies.
Let's start from the back of the pack.
The role of the FBI
Maas's "Killer Spy" has the action/adventure, made-for-television aura of his crime books. He follows a team of skilled, hard-working, good cops, who did the FBI proud - and showed up the CIA in their long inter-agency rivalry - by hunting down a corrupt, heartless couple whom Maas portrays as lusting for wealth.
He interviewed FBI agents at length, chronicled their operations, and highlighted the Bureau's expertise and even humanity in, for example, avoiding humiliating Rosario Ames before her young son. The implication is that the FBI could have struck much earlier, had the CIA taken seriously the clear signs of a mole in its ranks.
"Betrayal," by a New York Times trio, is more balanced, thorough and sensible, less concerned with the police procedural trivia that Maas relishes. But the authors become so enmeshed in narrative, in moving their story at a fast clip, that they either obscure or ignore three key questions.
First, why did Aldrich Ames, a bland, seemingly prosaic John Doe of middling talents, become a KGB spy? Does money alone (the $2,000,000-plus he received) fully explain the enormous risks he took, the near-certainty of eventual capture?
Second, what conditions in the CIA enabled this unpopular, bumbling alcoholic to keep it up for fully nine years?
Third, how much damage did he do?
Yes, he betrayed 10 Soviet CIA agents to the firing squad, and that's a human tragedy. But had their revelations helped Washington all that much?
When Stansfield Turner was CIA director under Jimmy Carter, he angered the old guard by raising questions about employing spies: The risk of capture is great, the benefits often minimal.
Certainly, "Betrayal" touches on these key issues, but only in a scattered, unsystematic way. For example, what triggered Ames' approach to the Soviets in April 1985?
The conventional answer is that he was recently divorced, broke, and needed cash to marry Rosario Casas Dupuy, a Colombian of elite - but not wealthy - background, to whom he offered a grander, more spacious life. In other words: Blame the woman. In "Killer Spy," Maas even refers to her as Lady MacBeth.
No doubt Rosario was a compulsive spender; from mid-1992 onward, she knowingly assisted her husband's spying.
But to understand the why and how of all this, we should consult James Adams's "Sellout," a serious-minded work. He has dug deep into the troubled relations between Ames and his father, a fellow CIA officer; has spelled out the grandiose - and ruthless - ambitions Rosario and Aldrich Ames harbored; and has given us just enough on the secretive, highly permissive, and irresponsible culture of the CIA to suggest how Ames could slip by.
The issue of alcoholism
Over all of this hovers a painful issue: alcoholism. It afflicted Aldrich Ames, his father, and many CIA officers. Ames had many blatant drunken escapades, all of them tolerated without official reprimand in an organization where a supervisor described him merely as "one of the worst drunks in the outfit." The consequences were disastrous, as Adams makes clear.
First, Ames sensed the disdain in which he was held, responded in kind, and tacitly turned against the CIA as a whole. (His wife, a Latin American intellectual, also hated the CIA.)
Second, protracted alcoholism distorts the personality, encouraging unreality and grandiosity and a sense that outsiders are fools easily outwitted. When, for example, Ames bought a $540,000 house for cash, without a mortgage, he assumed he could bluff his way through.
And, amazingly enough, he was largely correct. The CIA had had 20 terrible years of fanatical mole hunting under James Angleton, and no one wanted a new round, even after virtually all its agents in the Soviet Union were arrested in 1985-86 - thanks to Aldrich Ames.
More importantly, the Directorate of Operations, an elite within the elite, rejected as unthinkable the very idea that it could harbor a mole. This closed fraternity had moved from the secrecy essential to operations to that which covered its brethren in their errors, failures, misdemeanors, and outright crimes.
The CIA elite, like the Tailhook aviators and the New York policemen who recently ran wild in Washington hotels, regarded themselves as above the law - and Ames was a beneficiary of that attitude. This becomes very clear in David Wise's "Nightmover," by far the best of these books. There is, to be sure, an absurd exaggeration in its subtitle - "How Aldrich Ames sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 million" - for the KGB actually paid Ames $2,700,000; another $1,900,000 was merely promised.
But behind "Nightmover" stand 30 years of serious writing about the CIA. So Wise can offer insights into its introverted corporate culture that few authors dare attempt.
Against the CIA's insistence that its staff represents the best and the brightest, Wise presents a lazy, mediocre, often arrogant Ames nevertheless climbing the ladder, eventually reaching key positions. Yes, he had a prestigious mentor, and had been associated with a successful case or two, but this was seniority at work, little more. That, and the inherent tendency of bureaucracies to care for their own - no matter the cost. For Ames had turned against the CIA, and by the mid-1980s had defected ideologically to the KGB.
Not money, not even drink, drove Ames into spying, Wise argues, but a contempt for the CIA itself. And was that contempt entirely undeserved? Read it and see.