Aldrich Ames (born 1941), an American spy and traitor, sold the entire list of American spies operating in the Soviet Union to the KGB, the Soviet spy agency, in 1985. Several undercover agents were killed as a result of his betrayal. Arrested in 1994, he was convicted of espionage and tax evasion and sentenced to life in prison.
Aldrich Ames was born on May 26, 1941, in River Falls, Wisconsin. His father, Carleton Ames, became an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the United States' foreign espionage agency. In the summer of 1957, the teenaged Ames also began working at the CIA, as a file clerk. After he spent two years studying at the University of Chicago, the CIA hired him in 1962. He spent 1969 to 1972 as an undercover agent in Turkey, doing his part in the cold war between the United States and the Communist Soviet Union by recruiting Soviet citizens to spy for the United States.
Ames married CIA co-worker Nancy Jane Segebarth and spent the 1970s in Washington, DC, as well as in New York City, where he became friendly with several Soviets who worked at the United Nations. At one point, he handled the case of a prominent Soviet defector for the CIA. “I knew some Soviets in New York who were very interesting,” Ames recalled during a 1994 jailhouse interview with Tim Weiner of the New York Times. “The chief Pravda representative in New York and I had lunch together every couple of weeks for about three years.” (Pravda was the Soviet Union's official government-run newspaper.)
From 1981 to 1983, Ames worked for the CIA in Mexico City, a move that contributed to the breakup of his first marriage. While in Mexico, he met Maria del Rosario (“Rosa”) Casas Dupuy, who was from Colombia and working for the CIA. The two began dating and would eventually marry.
Counterintelligence had fallen out of favor at the CIA during the 1980s; agency director William J. Casey preferred offense to defense and emphasized hiring and recruiting new covert agents. “Counterintelligence did not always attract the best and brightest,” explained Tim Weiner, David Johnston, and Neil A. Lewis in Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, an American Spy, “and it was sometimes used as a dumping ground for vaguely talented misfits who did not have what it takes to make it in the secret world.”
Ames was not well regarded within the CIA; according to Weiner, Johnston, and Lewis in Betrayal, “he was by then a gray, bland government bureaucrat, 42 years old, possessed of an impressive title, a serious drinking problem, and a major mid-life crisis.” Ames was frustrated to have a desk job in counterintelligence instead of a foreign assignment. “He played the role of office goof-off, getting in everyone's way with his aimless chitchat,” the Betrayal authors explained. “Those who liked Ames thought he was smart but lazy. Many others could not stand him.”
His new job in counterintelligence gave Ames access to files involving secret CIA operations, and he began to study “double agents,” spies working for their own country who secretly betray it and pass secrets to a rival nation. Ames looked up the files of living and dead Soviets who had spied for the CIA and made an interesting discovery: by 1984 about a dozen Soviets, mostly intelligence agents for the Soviet Union's KGB or GRU (its foreign intelligence agency), were secretly helping the CIA as double agents.
Unhappy with his career and facing financial difficulties due to his imminent divorce from his first wife and the expensive tastes that he and Casas Dupuy shared, Ames decided to offer the Soviets a deal. On April 16, 1985, he went to meet a Soviet diplomat whom, as he told his CIA bosses, he was attempting to recruit as a CIA source. When the diplomat did not show up, Ames had a few drinks and then went to the Soviet embassy in Washington, DC. He handed an officer there the names of two or three embassy employees who had offered to work for the United States. (Ames justified the disclosure to himself by assuming that these officers were “dangles,” KGB officers making insincere offers as strategic bait.) He then asked the Soviets for $50,000. “Money was the motivation,” Ames later told Weiner in the New York Times.
After that, according to Ames, he grew paranoid that any of the CIA's spies in Russian intelligence might discover his betrayal and expose him. He decided to expose them all first. In June 1985, Ames took six pounds of documents to a bar in Washington, DC, and handed them to his friend, the Soviet diplomat. The documents included all the names from the CIA's network of spies recruited from within the Soviet government. Ten secret agents were arrested and executed. For instance, General Dmitri F. Polyakov of the GRU, the Soviet military intelligence organization, who had given the CIA valuable information for years, was arrested, interrogated, and executed. Ames's actions left the United States with no secret agents in Moscow.
Several weeks later, in August of 1985, Ames was assigned to debrief a new Soviet defector, Vitaly S. Yurchenko. He arrived at the debriefing unsure whether Yurchenko knew about his betrayal. He did not, and Ames spent the next few weeks debriefing the Soviet defector at a safe house in northern Virginia. When Yurchenko revealed that several American agents were secretly double agents working for the Soviet Union, Ames tipped off his KGB contacts. The information allowed at least one such agent, fired CIA employee Edward Lee Howard, to escape from the United States to Eastern Europe. (Yurchenko, meanwhile, changed his mind about his defection and returned to the USSR in November of 1985.)
Five of the CIA's secret agents on assignment in the Soviet Union had disappeared by the fall of 1985, and another 20 were missing a year later. At first, the CIA blamed Howard, but it eventually became clear that he did not have access to enough information to doom all of the lost agents. In fall 1986, the CIA launched an investigation and considered the possibility that a mole, or agency insider, had betrayed the agents. Another possibility was that the Soviets had bugged or intercepted CIA communications or stolen insider documents. Meanwhile, the KGB sent false leads to the CIA to distract them from Ames.
Also in 1986, the CIA assigned Ames to Rome, Italy, where he worked for three years and continued meeting with KGB agents. When his posting to Rome ended in 1989, the KGB gave him instructions about what to spy on after he returned to Washington, DC. Back in the US capital by September of 1989, the CIA named Ames chief of its Soviet division's Western Europe branch. The position was eliminated soon after, when the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 ended the cold war.
Ames continued to spy for the Soviet Union into the early 1990s. He would leave secret documents in “dead drops,” hiding places arranged in advance. Russian agents then left money and new assignments for him at other dead drops. Before the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, Ames warned the KGB about two CIA operations in Russia: installing listening devices in the Soviet Union's space facility and developing an advanced technology that allowed the agency to determine the number of nuclear warheads mounted on Soviet missiles. After 1991, Ames continued to spy for the KGB's successor, the Russian security service.
In 1989, the CIA mole-hunting team received its first tip about Ames when a colleague reported that he and his Colombian wife Rosa seemed to be living beyond their means. However, the mole-hunting team did not immediately focus on Ames, and in 1991 a CIA investigator in Bogota, assigned to investigate his wife's family, diffused this concern by passing along the false gossip that Rosa's family was wealthy. Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was growing suspicious of Ames, because it had spotted him making visits to the Soviet embassy that he did not report to his bosses. It received permission from a judge to tap his phone in 1992.
For ten months, the FBI conducted surveillance of Ames. Agents assembled evidence of his contacts with Russia's foreign intelligence service. In October 1993, FBI agents learned that Ames had marked a mailbox in Washington, DC, with chalk to signal that he would meet a Russian agent in South America. Agents tailed him and photographed his meeting with the agent in Venezuela that November.
By 1994, Ames and his Colombian second wife had received $2.7 million from the KGB and its successor, the most that the Soviet Union/Russia ever paid an American spy. Ames far outspent his CIA salary of $80,000, using the Russian money to buy, among other things, a maroon Jaguar XJ6 car that cost $50,000 and a $540,000 house, which he paid for in cash. He began to wear a Gucci watch and $1,000 suits to work. His wife bought 500 pairs of shoes and 60 purses.
In February of 1994, the FBI learned that Ames was planning overseas travel, including a trip to Russia. FBI agents had Ames's boss call him into the office. When the agent left his house by car on February 21, 1994, he was arrested by federal agents.
Under questioning, Ames confessed that he had identified several CIA and FBI sources to Russian and Soviet intelligence, betrayals that had led to many sources' deaths and arrests. “They died because this warped, murdering traitor wanted a bigger house and a Jaguar,” CIA director James Woolsey declared, as quoted by Weiner in the New York Times. According to investigators, Ames's wife had discovered his spying in 1992; until then, she had been assured that his extra income was the result of good investments.
In April of 1994, Ames pleaded guilty to espionage and tax evasion and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. His wife, Rosa, pleaded guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy to commit espionage and was sentenced to five years in prison. She returned to South America after her release. Ames told an interviewer in 1998 that his motives for betraying the United States were “personal, banal, and amounted really to greed and folly,” as reported on the Nova episode titled “Secrets, Lies, and Atomic Spies.”
In late 1994, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a report that criticized the CIA for failing to catch Ames sooner. That failure “led to the loss of virtually all of CIA's intelligence assets targeted at the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war,” according to the committee's report (as quoted by Weiner in the New York Times). The Intelligence Committee report blamed Ames, and the CIA's inability to catch him for years, for the execution of ten Soviet and Eastern European agents, the exposure of 100 US intelligence operations, and the loss of thousands of pages of classified documents.
Some mystery still exists regarding the details of Ames's betrayals. In 2015, espionage historian David Wise suggested that three of the double agents Ames said he exposed may have actually been betrayed earlier by another, never-identified mole. For instance, Oleg Gordievsky, the chief of the KGB's London station, was exposed as a double agent for the British spy service MI6 in May of 1985, a month before Ames reportedly gave Gordievsky's name to the KGB. “I'm quite sure of my recollection that I gave the KGB no names of any other than the two or three double agents/dangles I provided in April '85, until June 13th,” he later wrote Wise in a letter Wise quoted in Smithsonian. As 2018 began, Ames was serving out his life sentence at the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Institution in Indiana.
Weiner, Tim, David Johnston, and Neil A. Lewis, Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, an American Spy, Random House, 1995.
New York Times, April 29, 1994, David Johnston, “Spy Voices Shame and Defiance before Receiving a Life Sentence”; July 31, 1994, Tim Weiner, “Why I Spied: Aldrich Ames”; November 2, 1994, Tim Weiner, “Senate Report Faults C.I.A. for Ineptitude in Spy Case”; June 19, 1995, Jeff Stein, “The Mole Who Never Bothered to Wear a Mask”; July 2, 1995, Joseph Finder, “The Spy Who Sold Out.”
Smithsonian, November 2015, David Wise, “Thirty Years Later, We Still Don't Truly Know Who Betrayed These Spies.”
Central Intelligence Agency, https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/ames-mole-hunt-team.html (April 30, 2013), “The People of the CIA: Ames Mole Hunt Team.”
Federal Bureau of Investigation, https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/aldrich-ames (December 23, 2017), “Famous Cases: Aldrich Ames.”
Federal Bureau of Prisons, https://www.bop.gov/inmateloc/ (January 8, 2018), “Find an Inmate.”□