Rob Hardy on books


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How They Caught The Traitor Spy



Rob Hardy


We love our spy movies, but no one is going to make a thriller out of Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed (Naval Institute Press) by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille. The book lacks the explosions, scalings of the outsides of skyscrapers, and high-tech gadgetry that we associate with our onscreen spies. What it does not lack is a sturdy and detailed insiders' account, often grim and dismaying, of one of the worst betrayals in American espionage and how it was uncovered. Grimes and Vertefeuille were lifetime CIA employees, and neither would have wanted their greatest contribution to their firm to have been the fingering of a traitor within their midst, but their work was an eventual triumph that ensured Ames made no further betrayals. It is a story of long, difficult, and frustrating tracking of details (obviously not Hollywood fodder). The authors say it has been frustrating to get the book out, too. The CIA did want the story told, but naturally it had to review the book to ensure no secrets were leaked. The authors say they took more than three years to come to terms with the CIA's Publications Review Board, although 90% of the disputes were settled in their favor. What resulted is an inside look at how real spies work, with determination and drudgery rather than explosions. 




Aldrich Ames was the son of a CIA employee who did not excel in his own career. Ames did clerical work for the CIA during high school, and starting in 1962 he did the same sort of work full time, eventually becoming a career officer. He got assignments to Turkey and Mexico City, but most of his work was done while he was at the Soviet-East European division within CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. His work was satisfactory, but lackluster, and tainted with tardiness in his reports and especially with problems with alcohol. Since he worked on Soviet affairs, he was encouraged to make contact with Soviet agents; cultivating such contacts was standard operating procedure, because the CIA might be able thereby to gain valuable information. Ames was to report all such contacts, and reported many, but not all. In 1985 he began a second marriage with a Columbian woman who was a spendthrift. He needed money, and he got it; she was from a wealthy family in Columbia, and he explained that his expensive new house and car were purchased from her inheritance.  




Actually, he was giving information to Soviet agents and being paid for it. It wasn't that he was giving details about gadgets or administrative procedures. He was giving up names. The first part of this book tells about various Russians who were helping our side. The dedication of the book is: "To General Polyakov / And to the others / Who were executed or imprisoned / And to their families." Polyakov's case is the main one examined and may have been our main loss. He was a general, a Soviet military intelligence officer who was "the highest-ranking spy ever run against the Soviet Union during the Cold War." Polyakov, like many such agents, turned against the Soviet system for matters of principle. He had been impressed by how his fellow soldiers fought in WWII, but in subsequent decades he saw such men being taken advantage of by party leaders who were thugs and crooks. He did not want to defect; he wanted to work within the Soviet system, and use the gifts his American handlers got him to secure his place in it, and the places for his sons. The authors explain that gifts and payments to him were paltry in comparison to the detailed information that he was bringing out, a flow of information that lasted more than two decades. Ames identified him as spying for the US in 1985; within three years, Polyakov had been executed. 




The authors make plain various reasons that Ames was able to betray Polyakov and others; one of the big reasons was the "Monster Plot," the idea that those Russians who were ready to give information to the US were really phony defectors whom the CIA would be foolish to trust. The authors insist that "the phony defector is an urban myth that has not existed since at least the end of World War II." They say that the Soviets would never trust an agent enough to let him come under any long-term control by the US. When it finally became clear to the CIA that there was some mole within its midst, Grimes and Vertefeuille were on the case. Grimes was a daughter of parents who had worked on the Manhattan Project. She joined the CIA in 1967, and was soon assigned to study the spy system of their Soviet counterparts. Vertefeuille had joined in 1954, becoming part of the typing pool until women's career paths within the agency opened up. She, too, became an expert on Soviet intelligence. The women worked together in that field, and they also worked with Ames, with Grimes carpooling with him to work at one point. They didn't think much of him, but he made a fatal mistake of not thinking much of them. He made it plain during the investigation that he thought they were a couple of dumb broads from whom he had nothing to fear. 




Grimes, Vertefeuille, and their team, however, were formidable, tenacious bloodhounds. Much of the book gives details about the search, including many frustrating dead ends. For instance, a KGB breach of the US embassy in Moscow required a full investigation for a year and thousands of pages of documents, only to show that no breach had happened. Hunting into inheritances in Columbia was tried, but frustratingly such documents are not a matter of public record. A chronology of Ames's activities started as just an informal reference, but it grew into "a text-searchable word-processing document more than five hundred pages long, mind-numbing to compile and even more mind-numbing to read." It was this sort of slog, however, that produced results. The real breakthrough came when correlating Ames's meetings with his Soviet contact and next-day deposits into his bank account. He was simply selling secrets for money, and people died because of it. 




The team turned over its findings to the FBI, which arrested Ames in 1994. The CIA has no power to arrest, and the FBI had helped in the case, but there was a subsequent and unpleasant tussle over credit, starting with an FBI public statement taking credit for all the real work. Then the CIA issued its public statement. Then the FBI refused to accept the public statement of the CIA. Then the attorney general issued the FBI's version. There would be no joint statement, whereas there had been willing cooperation on the case beforehand. The CIA also seems to have been peculiarly negligent in gratitude to the authors and their team; a couple of days after Ames's arrest, however, President Clinton and Vice President Gore both came to Vertefeuille to express thanks, which she relayed to the team.  




Ames pled guilty and will be in federal prison until he dies. Vertefeuille died at the end of last year, leaving her friend Grimes to take care of what she wanted, a simple cremation with no spreading of the ashes, no burial, no funeral, and no obituary. She must have thought, for all her dedication, that she had just been doing her job, and she obviously liked the obscurity of it. She didn't completely get her wish; her obituary was in the New York Times. And then there is this fine book which is gripping without any pyrotechnics, a story that could not be told except by the women who brought Ames down.



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