Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of an occasional series of feature stories exploring some of the most important insider threat cases in U.S. national security history.
The FBI had just arrested U.S. Navy intelligence analyst Jonathan Pollard for espionage in November of 1985 when it became aware of a mole operating deep within the CIA.
After U.S. agents recruited two Soviet embassy employees in Washington and turned them into double agents, Soviet officials recalled both agents to Moscow, where they were summarily executed. It was a devastating blow for the CIA and triggered an immediate investigation into the likely causes. It was the beginning of what would eventually become known as Operation Nightmover.
The investigation went nowhere for the next six years, even as three additional double agents based in Washington, D.C., disappeared without explanation. Then, in 1991, as the FBI officially launched Nightmover and began piecing together the movements and personal lives of everyone who had access to information pertaining to the betrayed agents, the mole hunters developed a list of 29 potential suspects. Among them was the name Aldrich Hazen Ames, the chief of the CIA’s Soviet Counterintelligence Division.
Ames began his full-time career at the CIA in 1962 as a low-level clerk/typist. For the next five years, he served as a document analyst in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations while attending George Washington University on a part-time basis. He graduated from GWU in the fall of 1967, by which time he had attained the grade of GS-7 and applied for the CIA’s Career Training Program – the schooling required for all CIA case officers.
The CIA’s initial psychological profile of Ames placed him at the low end of the spectrum in terms of the qualities the agency looked for in a case officer (those responsible for recruiting and managing foreign nationals to spy on behalf of the U.S.). Ames was considered an intellectual and a loner – two qualities that we will see again as we continue our study of insiders. Nonetheless, Ames made the cut and was sent out into the field.
Ames’ first overseas tour as a case officer took him to Ankara, Turkey. There, his superiors rated his initial performance as “satisfactory.” But their assessment of Ames’ capabilities would quickly change. By his third year in the field, agency officials informed headquarters that Ames was not suited for fieldwork and that he should return to Langley, Virginia, for reassignment. Ames was devastated and considered leaving the CIA.
Upon returning to headquarters in 1972, he was reassigned to the Soviet-East European Division and underwent Russian language training. His performance appraisals improved dramatically “apparently because he was more proficient in managing paperwork and planning field operations than being ‘on the front lines’.”
Despite this temporary improvement in performance, Ames’ personal and professional lives remained in a constant state of semi-controlled chaos for the next 12 years. A strained marriage and a drinking problem threatened his CIA career at almost every turn. Then, by 1984, his marriage had ended (as a new relationship with a foreign national who would become his second wife was beginning). But of greater concern to Ames were the terms of the divorce settlement, which, in his mind, threatened to bankrupt him. The following is Ames’ own recollection of the financial pressure that led him to consider espionage.
“I felt a great deal of financial pressure, which, in retrospect, I was clearly overreacting to. The previous two years that I had spent in Washington, I had incurred a certain amount of personal debt in terms of buying furniture for an apartment and my divorce settlement had left me with no property essentially. Together with a cash settlement of about $12,000 to buy out my pension over time, I think I may have had about $10,000 or $13,000 in debt. It was not a truly desperate situation but it was one that somehow really placed a great deal of pressure on me. Rosario was living with me at the time…I was contemplating the future. I had no house, and we had strong plans to have a family, and so I was thinking in the longer term.”
April 16, 1985 was a typical spring day in Washington, D.C.; the temperature was in the mid-50s, the skies were partly sunny and a light breeze energized the senses. It was on that day that Ames walked into the Soviet embassy in Washington and handed the duty clerk an envelope addressed to the most senior KGB agent present. Inside was a note detailing the identities of two Soviet double agents, a page from an internal CIA directory with his real name highlighted, and a request for a cash payment of $50,000. A few days later, he met face-to-face with his Soviet handler and received the cash.
According to Ames, this one-time con game was planned as a means to dig himself out of his financial troubles. But this raises an obvious question: why did he continue his espionage activities? Surprisingly, nobody, not even Ames, knows for sure. In the following statement taken after he was arrested, Ames recounts what was going through his mind at the time.
“I’m still puzzled as to what took me to the next steps. The main factor, on balance I think, was a realization after I had received the $50,000, was a sense of the enormity of what I had done. I think I had managed under the stress of money and thinking, conceiving the plan I had carried out in April, I saw it as perhaps a clever, …not a game, but a very clever plan to do one thing. …(I)t came home to me, after the middle of May, the enormity of what I had done. The fear that I had crossed a line, which I had not clearly considered before. That I crossed a line I could never step back.”
And step back he did not. Without prompting from his KGB handlers, Ames then printed out “five to seven pounds” worth of top-secret documents detailing high-level spies working for the U.S., wrapped the documents in plastic and walked out of CIA headquarters.