By Jai Kumar Verma
New Delhi. 21 October 2021. Aldrich Hazen Ames, an officer of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who served several years in Directorate of Operations which was directly dealing with Russia and Eastern European countries, was arrested for the charges of espionage by The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1994. Ames who worked for KGB for about nine years was arrested along with his second wife Rosario who also worked as CIA agent before her marriage with Ames. She assisted and abetted Ames in his espionage activities and the court awarded a five-year imprisonment to her for espionage and tax evasion. The court sentenced life imprisonment without parole to Ames. In the United States life imprisonment is most stern punishment after death penalty while life imprisonment without parole means that Ames has to pass rest of his life in prison. Ames compromised highly placed CIA assets in comparison to any other CIA officer until Robert Hansen who was arrested seven years later in 2001.
The Directorate of Operations of CIA is responsible for collection of intelligence, conducts clandestine operations which most of the time are illegal. The clandestine operations include subversion, overthrowing of unfriendly regimes and financial and other assistance to friendly political personalities of different countries of the world.
Ames was fluent in Russian and specialised in Russian intelligence services including KGB. When he was posted at CIA headquarters in Soviet/East European Division he volunteered to work for KGB on 16 April 1985. Ames gave the names of two KGB officers who may have defected. KGB realised his importance and paid him USD 50,000. As Ames volunteered for money and was working in Soviet & East European Division, he gave details of sources and contacts of CIA and FBI supplying information about Soviet Union. Besides human sources he also gave details about the technical operations launched by U.S. against Soviets. Ames also met Moscow based KGB officer in Bogota, Colombia. He did foreign postings in Mexico, Italy, and other places where he continued working for KGB.
When he was returning from Rome after completing his posting his KGB handling officer gave him the details of KGB officer in Washington DC to whom he had to contact. His handling officer also told him that KGB paid him $ 1.88 million in four years. Ames returned to C.I.A. Headquarters in 1989 and continued supplying information to KGB through DLB. The KGB officer was paying money through another Dead Drop. Here it is important that they were using different Dead drops for supplying documents and for paying money. It was an important precaution.
Ames gave information about Russians who were working for C.I.A. The KGB took immediate action and C.I.A. spies were arrested and executed. It raised suspicion against Ames who had unaccounted wealth hence an enquiry was initiated against him in May 1993. The FBI launched both physical and electronic surveillance against him and clandestine searches of his residence revealed his connection with KGB as some incriminating documents were also recovered.
The F.B.I. also decoded his signal (A chalk mark on a mailbox) that he was ready to meet his handling Officer at Bogota, Colombia. As Ames was a trained intelligence officer FBI could not catch him along with his handling officer but they observed both of them separately at Bogota. In 1994 when he had to attend a conference in Moscow he and his wife were arrested on 21 February 1994.
During sustained interrogation he revealed that he disclosed the identities of several agents of C.I.A. and F.B.I. and few of them were executed by the then USSR authorities. Government has also seized his assets worth $ 547,000.
Ames father also worked in CIA but got negative appraisal because of alcoholism. Ames did small jobs in CIA when he was a student. He joined CIA under Career Trainee Program, although he had several alcohol related skirmishes with police. In Turkey Ames successfully penetrated in Marxist-Leninist organisation namely Dev-Genc organisation but his performance remained ‘satisfactory’. His performance improved when he was posted in CIA headquarters as well as when he was posted in New York and handled two important Soviet agents. However, his drinking habit, delay in submission of accounts and one or two security breaches also came to notice which were ignored.
In 1981 he was posted to Mexico City where he had more than three extramarital affairs. Later he married with Rosario who was also his informant. His performance was lacklustre because of heavy drinking. He also quarrelled with a Cuban official in a diplomatic reception because of excessive consumption of alcohol.
The C.I.A. ignored all these shortcomings and in September 1983, he was posted back in Department of Operations to deal with counterintelligence operations against Soviet Union. He got access to CIA plans and operations against KGB and GRU. Meanwhile he took divorce with Nancy and agreed to pay about $46000/. He reached near bankruptcy and thought to start working for Soviets to earn money. His second wife Rosario was a heavy spender and it increased his financial problems.
In April 1985 Ames contacted Soviets with some information and demanded $50,000. Soviets knowing his utility immediately paid the money. Initially Ames thought that he will just supply information once or twice and when his financial debt is paid, he will stop working. However, once you cross the line you “could never step back”.
At the outset Ames gave names of 10 CIA agents who were supplying information pertaining to Soviet Union. These agents were neutralised and soon CIA realised that its assets dealing with Soviet Union are fast compromised. Initially CIA rejected the possibility of a Soviet mole in agency and thought it may be possible because of breaking of a code or because of Soviet bugging. CIA also suspected other employee instead of Ames. However, when three important CIA assets were compromised the needle of suspicion pointed towards Ames, he complained to his handling officer that immediate eliminating of assets is not correct. The handling officer agreed to it but told that the decision was at highest political level.
Ames became greedy and continued meeting his handling officer, as on every meeting he was receiving $20,000 to $50000. Ames received $4.6 million from KGB and he started to live the lifestyle which a CIA officer cannot afford although he tried to concoct a story that he is getting money from the affluent family of his second wife. But after some time, the reality came out that his in-laws are not wealthy.
Ames also told his handling officer that now he is under suspicion, hence KGB through another source tried to misguide CIA that mole was in Warrenton Training Centre (WTC) and it distracted the CIA from Ames. In 1986, Ames was posted to Rome, there also his performance because of excessive drinking remain poor but in 1990-91 he was again posted at a very sensitive place where he was dealing with ‘double agents’ in CIA office. It appears that because of his fluent Russian and his knowledge about Soviet Union he was posted again and again in the section dealing with Soviet Union.
Meanwhile in 1986 CIA instituted a team to find out the cause of leak. The team after analysing several angles came to the conclusion that there is a mole in CIA who is supplying the information to KGB. As they were not able to pinpoint the person the recruitment of Soviet agents was stopped for some time.
In November 1989 a fellow colleague of Ames reported that the lifestyle of Ames is very lavish and his Colombian wife’s family is not very rich but CIA went slowly. Ames also passed two polygraph tests in 1986 and 1991.
However, CIA officials revealed that Ames is living beyond his means wearing tailor made suits, purchased a house worth $ 540,000, maintaining Jaguar luxury car, possess primum credit cards, just to name few.
In view of his luxurious lifestyle the CIA and FBI initiated an exhaustive investigation by putting electronic as well as physical surveillance, his car and house were also bugged. After his arrest, he and his wife were charged for spying for Soviet Union and then Russia. According to an estimate about a hundred U.S. assets were compromised and about 10 were executed by Russia because of his information. KGB also fed disinformation to US which were used for planning and even sent to US President.
1.Once a person starts working as an spy for an intelligence organisation of other country and if he/she supplies useful information the intelligence organisation of other country will not leave him. Here Ames when he came back from Italy and was posted at C.I.A. headquarters, his handling officer told him that he should continue working in Hqrs and also told him that KGB paid him $ 1.88 million dollars. The end of a spy is either he is caught or he commits suicide. Hence one should be careful as one cannot retrace his steps.
2. C.I.A. had also not considered that Ames was spendthrift and from where he will pay $ 46000 as divorce settlement with first wife. Initially Ames thought that he will just supply information once or twice and when his financial debt is paid, he will stop working. However, once you cross the line you “could never step back”. Security agencies should be careful with all its personnel especially with those who are working in sensitive sections.
3. Russians arrested and executed C.I.A spies immediately after getting information from Ames and it exposed him. In fact, Russians should have waited for some time more. It is an important lesson for all security agencies.
4. Ames came under suspicion because of his extravagant lifestyle and arrest of C.I.A agents whose details were given by Ames to KGB. Intelligence officers should be careful while making the payment as the agent should not adopt the life style which is beyond his known sources of income.
5. The counter intelligence officers can also decode the code hence one should be extremely careful. Here the F.B.I. sleuths decoded his chalk mark on mailbox which meant that he was ready to meet his handling officer at Bogota.
6. CIA ignored his alcohol related skirmishes with police and he was allowed to join Career Trainee Program of CIA which should be avoided.
7. C.I.A. again discounted his alcohol related problem as well as extramarital relations in Mexico. One extramarital relations was with his agent. The rival intelligence organisations always tries to exploit the weaknesses of prospective targets.
8. We must brief our agents that no incriminating material should be kept in residence as it gives conclusive evidence of the espionage. When F.B.I. searched the residence of Ames it recovered documents which proved his links with Russian intelligence agency.
9. Ames was fluent in Russian language, also raised Russians as sources and had knowledge of Russia hence he was posted again and again on the section dealing with Russia but it is also advisable not to post a person again and again in the same section as he may exploit his position. Not only this his performance in Italy was poor and he was known alcoholic hence he should not be posted in such a sensitive section.
10. At the time of recruitment of intelligence agencies it is important that his/her previous history must be checked thoroughly. Here if the previous history would have been checked then it could be revealed that he and his father both were alcoholics. The sensitive departments should avoid taking these type of persons.
11. Although Ames revealed the names and details of hundreds of spies working for CIA all over the world but the most important U.S. spy who was exposed by him was General Dimitri Fedorovich Polyakov. He was a Soviet Major General in Soviet Intelligence Agency GRU. He gave information to both CIA and FBI. In FBI his code name was TOPHAT (Top Hat) while in CIA he had code names BOURBON and ROAM. Major General Polyakov also worked in India as Military Attaché.
(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and member of United Services Institute of India and Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views in the article are solely the author’s. )