Earley, Pete. Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames. New York: Putnam's, 1997.
There are times when being last has its advantages. Four books on the Ames case appeared in short order after the case broke and almost two years later, Pete Earley weighs in with his contribution. Earley is an established investigative reporter who had previously written the well-received Family of Spies about the Walker Family spy ring. Rather than rush to the press, Earley has taken plenty of time to gather information from unexpected sources for this book.
The book looks at both sides of the case, Ames and the KGB on one side, and the CIA on the other (the bulk of the counterintelligence story lies with the CIA - the FBI contribution is only lightly touched upon.) Entirely unprecedented is his, albeit limited and not overly cooperative, access to former KGB sources. Earley also showed his investigative mettle by subverting the Department of Justice bureaucracy to obtain several hours of unsupervised interviews with Ames. After his subterfuge was tumbled to, and Ames was removed to a remote prison, the two continued an extensive written correspondence. Even the CIA eventually proved cooperative and gave him access to the counterintelligence team that unmasked Ames. Earley has taken these new sources, fused them with what has already become public knowledge, and has written a highly readable book that fills in some of the gaps in the story of Ames.
One of the most important questions about this book is whether or not Ames is telling the truth. The answer seems to be that he is, but only up to a point. It does not seem that he then starts lying, but tells the story to put himself in the best possible light. Ames will never be outside prison walls again, so he has plenty of time for self-examination and self criticism. Rather than do this, he seems to have taken to indulging in self-delusion.
After so many years of leading a double life, Ames developed a solution of separating his mind into compartments to cope with his deception. This is similar to what Klaus Fuchs described inaccurately as his "controlled schizophrenia." After he had been looking at the world from two different perspectives for so long, did Ames allow the perspective he found more convenient to take over? Inconsistencies do appear, for example: how much did Ames tell the KGB at the first meeting? Ames says he only told them enough to make things interesting, the KGB says he more or less told them everything - naming a large number of human sources and compromising two major technical collection operations. The resolution of these inconsistencies seems more often to be with Ames being reticent or indulging in self-deception than with his lying to the reader.
Ames himself dominates the first part of the book, which starts, as is typical with books about traitors, with the family tree. With Ames, there is no need to go beyond his father: a competent academic who became an undistinguished intelligence officer. The first words from Ames in the book are about his early life, and here he really does add some new depth to the story. Ames the elder appears to have been a decent man who tried to instill standards and a respect for the truth in his children; however, his poor performance at the CIA contributed to a withdrawal into an alcoholic isolation.
Ames the younger was unsettled in his college years, almost completing a degree in theater before taking to a period of wandering. He finally completed his studies when a degree became necessary to move from an internship to a career CIA officer. He was to claim that his theater training was a great help in recruiting and that he was a successful recruiter. This appears to be one of his exercises in self-delusion because he does not produce any evidence of his recruitments, except for two low-level ones in Turkey during his first unsuccessful overseas tour.
At about this point, Earley relinquishes control to Ames for a stretch as he spends a few chapters trying to explain his career and to explore the wellsprings of his disaffection. One of the sources was a cable from the then Soviet ambassador to the US, Anatoly Dobrynin, to the Kremlin describing a conversation with outgoing Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger appears to have given a detailed description to Dobrynin of how to get the better of his successor (Cyrus Vance) in the upcoming SALT II negotiations. If true, this would be tantamount to treason. Earley was not able to prove or disprove the story, despite a great deal of effort. Did Kissinger commit treason, or did Dobrynin conflate off-the-cuff remarks from Kissinger? Perhaps Ames fell for a Soviet disinformation exercise, perhaps he stopped telling the story when it suited his purpose.
Further rough waters are encountered when Ames attempts, unconvincingly, to link the betrayal of Ogorodnik (the CIA source who supplied the Dobrynin cable) to Karl Kocher - the Czech penetration agent. The whole effort falls flat and says more about Ames' credulity than his credibility. Earley later accepts the story uncritically. Ames further indulges in the classical demonology of the CIA, using the eminence grise of Angleton as the bete noire, by going over some hoary old stories: Angleton jailed Nosenko (he didn't), and was responsible for the exposure of the sources FEDORA and TOPHAT (producing no evidence beyond office gossip). Ames tries to justify his actions as a response to CIA misdeeds, but does not convince. The effort seems to be little more than a recitation of the folk history of the CIA, as if trying to convince the doctrinaire anti-CIA crowd that he is really one of theirs.
In between these episodes, Ames fills us in on his career. The broad outline is well-known and Ames' own words again help to flesh out the story. Although often unconvincing when trying to justify his treason, one does feel reasonably convinced that he was really quite good at some parts of being a case officer. In particular, he seemed to have been effective at managing the troubled spirits of Soviet assets. It is possible that the earlier books on Ames underplayed this ability of his. Even at a late stage in his career, he went to bat for one of his older Soviet sources. The CIA had decided to drop him because they believed he was a double agent. In one of the more bizarre reflections in the wilderness of mirrors, Ames was confident enough of the innocence of the man, Sergei Fedorenko, to help get his escrowed CIA payments released and to get the FBI to take him on as a defector.
Ames' first marriage had been rocky since his wife had to resign from the CIA to accompany him on his first overseas tour and it eventually ended after Ames met Rosario during an unaccompanied tour in Mexico. The end of the marriage, with a whimper rather than a bang, shows us some of the stresses placed on the personal life of a Clandestine Services officer. There is a little too much wallowing in pop psychology in Ames' search for explanations. This indulgence is a recurring problem, serving more to muddle than to enlighten. It was the financial strains arising from the divorce and the divorce settlement that drove Ames to betray his country rather than go to a financial advisor.
When Ames begins to justify his decision, he starts looking for some higher purpose on one hand, and to minimize the damage he did on the other. Using the concatenation of popular mythology and self-delusion, he tries to convince the reader that he was doing the right thing. At one point he comes up with the following:
"A lot of barriers that should have stopped me from betraying my country were gone. The first barrier was [the idea] that political intelligence matters.... On a tactical level, yes, good intelligence matters. If TRIGON had told us that the Kremlin was about to start a war, of course that would have been important."
On the one hand, Ames seems to be saying that it wasn't his fault, but on the other, he fails to recognize that without a TRIGON, the warning may never have been sent because he had betrayed those sources.
Ames goes on to claim that US national security was never endangered, but forgets that one of the sources he betrayed - Gordievsky - relayed intelligence of such political and strategic importance that it did little short of preventing a nuclear war and caused a major shift in US and British approaches to the USSR. (Ames also claims that he gave the KGB Gordievsky's name.) Similarly, he claims that the US was "not at war, despite the decades of hype and lies." In the most pedantic sense, this may be true. In a broader sense, it is downright wrong. The ideological struggle with the Soviet Union was as intense as it had ever been with several proxy wars at various stages. Any moderately alert student of history has noticed how easily the transition from firing words to firing weapons can be made.
An obligatory layer about the corruption of US power in general and of the CIA in particular is applied, but Ames fails to notice that in his own corruption that he could live the American dream on the backs of those he betrayed. His admission that he betrayed these people for money does nothing to mitigate his actions. That it was his own greed that finally led to his arrest is only just. Even in the limited statements from Ames in the earlier books, he came across as politically naive. Earley gives him the chance to redress things, but he fails to take it.
At one point, he seems to be making a plea for sympathy, as if claiming that he did not get a fair shake. He quotes Sir Francis Walsingham about hiring some "low fellow" to spy and concludes from it that "all of us detest a traitor, no matter how he sugar coats his treason or justifies his betrayal." I was always of the opinion that we detested those who betray us. We may have our reasonable concerns about those who spy for us, but detestation is surely not the dominant emotion. Gratitude must rank at least as high, and surely there can even be some admiration, not only for the courage of Polyakov or Kuklinski, but also for the Abel or Philby who conducted himself so well for the Other Side?
When Earley takes control again, the book concentrates on the counterintelligence investigation. One of the most overlooked aspects of the case is that Ames was the first American spying for the Soviets to be caught without help from a Soviet source. This is Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy brought to life. The Ames case has a lot in common with many earlier espionage cases and there are many unintentional allusions to them throughout the book. Unlike the cozy confines of the Circus, where the spy could be caught in a few weeks by a lone George Smiley in a hotel room with some purloined files, the sprawling Directorate of Operations occupied a team of five for several years. Their job was not made any easier by reorganizations, reassignments, and a lack of interest and encouragement from the new senior management.
The losses caused by Ames did not actually happen overnight, but over several months. It took some time to conclude that something systemic may be wrong. The first investigation by the then-outgoing CIA Inspector-General concluded that there was no underlying problem causing the losses. A communications security problem was seen as the most likely reason. The KGB did run a disinformation operation suggesting that CIA communications had been compromised. It took several months to disprove this idea. By the time this had been done, the morass of Iran-Contra had more or less paralyzed senior management at Langley. Later in the book, we find out that one of the CIA sources in Moscow (PROLOGUE) was a double agent using information gleaned from interrogations to build a deceptive case for the effectiveness of the KGB, and to successfully misdirect the CIA.
Once the KGB money started flowing, Ames, now married to Rosario, began to enjoy the good life during his posting to Rome. In doing so, they managed to alienate a large part of the embassy staff and Ames collected a poor fitness report. The double life again placed a strain upon Ames and upon the marriage. Rosario Ames comes across as even more of a harridan in this book than in the earlier ones. It was in Rome that he learned that all of the sources he had betrayed had been arrested. Even though he was disturbed by this, it did not stop him handing over further names and a stack of cables or setting up the pair of Swiss bank accounts and the eight bank accounts in the US that he used to launder his payments from the KGB.
As the investigation at Langley was maneuvering slowly through the paralysis imposed by Iran-Contra whilst also carrying the burden of the legacy of Angleton's misfired investigations, the Soviets were already throwing plenty of hardware into the works. Not only were they continuing with the communications security and PROLOGUE disinformation operations, they were also playing Clayton Lonetree affair for all it was worth. Lonetree was the Marine guard at the Moscow embassy who had been seduced by a female KGB agent and was believed to have let the KGB into the embassy at night. Imaginations ran riot at the possibilities.
According to Earley's interviews with the KGB, they were looking for a propaganda coup by inducing Lonetree, a Native American, to defect. Even so, investigating the affair and elimination of the possibility took a good part of a year and the team fell victim to the change of management and the reorganizations brought about by the superseding of Casey by William Webster as DCI and the formation of the joint CIA-FBI Counterintelligence Center. This left only one Office of Security investigator to keep the case alive. He was on the right track when he decided that looking for the money was the best way to trap the mole, although his first suspect was entirely innocent.
Aldrich and Rosario were remarkably generous in leaving a trail. Eventually one of Ames' coworkers became suspicious about the sources of their income and, after wrestling with her conscience, reported her suspicions to a former member of the team. This episode recalls Graham Greene's foreword to Kim Philby's memoir, My Silent War, in which he opines that it is better to betray a country than a friend. This proved (eventually) to be the break the case needed and the rest is history. The errors and omissions that plagued the case, and that have recently been criticized again by a governmental inquiry, are covered just as well as in the other books. The words of those directly involved help us to better understand what happened and to remind us that the whole case was a human drama.
More than this, Earley shows us that the case was one involving human casualties. Many of the chapters have a coda of extended quotes from the interviews with Ames. Some chapters also end with quotes from friends and colleagues of Ames, and survivors of those he betrayed. These words of fathers, wives and children are often bitter and sorrowful, uncomprehending of what happened. They are a harsh counterpoint to Ames' emolient self-justification.Return to Chambers Reviews Table of Contents Return to Spy Cases - U.S. - Ames Table of Contents Return to Spy Cases - Ames - Books