Aldrich Ames - Rationalizing Treason - An Interview
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An interview with Aldrich Ames
Aldrich Ames was probably the most damaging mole in CIA history. A career agency official, Ames began selling U.S. secrets to the KGB in 1985; within a decade he had revealed more than 100 covert operations and betrayed at least 30 agents, 10 of whom were later executed by the Soviets. Along with his co-conspirator and wife, Rosario, Ames was paid more than $2.7 million for the information before he was arrested in 1994. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Ames was interviewed for the COLD WAR series in March 1998.
On becoming disillusioned at the CIA:
By the late '70s I had come to question the point, the value, of a great deal of what we were doing, in terms of the [CIA's] overall charter, and to question whether this was having any significant impact on American policy. ...
By the early '80s, when I moved into a new job in the counterintelligence branch in the Soviet division ... I discovered that my growing misgivings were even truer than I had thought. And I found myself looking around me at the history of our Soviet espionage program with some amazement and some feeling that my earlier doubts had been confirmed in spades. I found that, for example, our Soviet espionage efforts had virtually never, or had very seldom, produced any worthwhile political or economic intelligence on the Soviet Union. ...
Sources [in the Soviet Union] demonstrated ... [there was] a rather ad hoc defensive approach from Gromyko and Brezhnev and the Soviet foreign policy establishment at the time. ... Not this secret master plan for world conquest that was so much at issue in the late '70s, when many people, including policymakers, took the view that the West was under a new coordinated aggressive assault. These materials just simply not only didn't support it, but tended to contradict it.
On selling U.S. secrets to the Soviets:
At the time that I handed over the names and compromised so many CIA agents in the Soviet Union ... I had come to the conclusion that the loss of these sources to the United States government, or to the West as well, would not compromise significant national defense, political, diplomatic interests. ... And I would say that this belief of the
non-injurious nature of what I was doing ... permitted me to do what I did for much more personal reasons. ...
The reasons that I did what I did in April of 1985 were personal, banal, and amounted really to kind of greed and folly. As simple as that. [I decided] to do that in order to make some quick and easy money, at very low risk and doing very little damage. Because at that time, in April, I saw [my actions] as almost like a scam I was running on the KGB: by giving them people that I knew were their double agents fed to us. ...
But it was a matter of pursuing an intensely personal agenda, of trying to make some money that I felt I needed very badly, and in a sense that I felt at the time, one of terrible desperation. I mean, you might as well ask why a middle-aged man with no criminal record might go and put a paper bag over his head and rob a bank. I mean, it's that kind of dramatic, and perhaps interesting, but when you get right down to it, kind of banal answer. ...
These beliefs and ideas that I had had and developed over a long time enabled me to act out of personal desperation, as if there were no taboo against it, in running my little scam in April '85: "Give me $50,000 -- here's some names of some people we've recruited." And of course, I knew that these were really harmless, because these were [double-agents] the KGB had sent to us. I assumed that they'd be happy to pay the $50,000 because I was a CIA officer, and it was cheap. ...
I could have stopped it after they paid me the $50,000. I wouldn't even have had to go on to do more than I already had: just the double agents' names that I gave. And the reason that I didn't stop will forever be inexplicable to me, as well as, I suppose, to everyone else. ... The KGB would have been happy to have planted the one little hook: they wouldn't have pressured me; they wouldn't have tried to blackmail me into doing more. They would have sat back and said, you know, "What brought him to us first will bring him again." I wasn't afraid of any pressure from the Soviet side.
But what happened after I got the $50,000, I think, was the realization that despite my ideas and beliefs that there was nothing really damaging in all of this -- which I continue to subscribe to -- [I] had overlooked the element of betrayal, the taboo; that, granted, I hadn't given away agents who would suffer; I hadn't given away information that would, in my view or in practically anyone's, really do any serious damage; I had received some money. But the taboo, the betrayal -- I trafficked with the devil. This I hadn't factored in.
And I am not trying to present myself, in April or May or June, as a fully rational person -- I wasn't. But in the kinds of calculations I had been making, I hadn't taken that into account. And what happened to me in May, when I got the money, the whole burden, in a sense, descended on me -- and the realization of what I had done. And it led me then to make the further step, which in a sense was to cast myself into it, which meant an unreserved offer of loyalty, if you will -- a change of loyalties. I mean, it's not particularly ideological or political, but much more personal in that sense: a change of loyalties, in which I said, "I'm yours. I've cast myself out, and I realize what I've done to myself, and I don't belong here anymore, I belong there." And that's what I did. And that's when I gave the names. ...
I compiled a list [of names] and, together with documents, delivered them, feeling that I was completing something I'd started -- that I had not had the original intent to do, but realizing that this was a completion. ...
We never discussed the issue of what would be done with the names.
On the people he betrayed:
I knew quite well, when I gave the names of our agents in the Soviet Union, that I was exposing them to the full machinery of counterespionage and the law, and then prosecution and capital punishment, certainly, in the case of KGB and GRU officers who would be tried in a military court. And certainly others, that they were almost all at least potentially liable to capital punishment. There's simply no question about this.
Now, I believed that the KGB, with the support of the political leadership, would want to keep it very much under wraps. And I felt at the time that not only for the overriding practical reason of protecting me, they would also find it useful to cover up the embarrassing fact of who so many of these people were, and that this would all have a somewhat dampening effect on the results of the compromise [of the agents' identities]. But of course, you know, given time and circumstances, obviously I knew these folks would have to answer for what they'd done. And certainly I felt I inured myself against a reaction to that.
The only thing I ever withheld from the KGB were the names of two agents whom I personally had known and handled and had a particular feeling for. So obviously I was feeling something; I distinguished two agents from all the rest on the basis of my personal feelings. Later, after the compromises, when I was in Rome, feeling that for particular reasons these folks would not be persecuted, much less prosecuted, I did give the KGB their names, but I felt confident when I did that, that the consequences to them would not be significant. And they have not been.
But it is important to at least recognize in retrospect that while a number of the agents that I compromised were executed, others were treated with relative leniency. At least one KGB officer only got 15 years, and of course later [was] released under the amnesty, and traveled to the United States, where he lives. Now this is a KGB officer who worked in place for the FBI and the CIA. ...
The point is simply this: that men like Polyakov and the others did what they did because they had what they considered sufficient reasons for doing so. What they did was, they gave up names, they gave up secrets, they gave up what their countries, their governments, and the people in those countries generally considered deep, important secrets of tremendous weight; and they gave up people, they gave up the names of people who had placed their trust in them. I did the same thing, for reasons that I considered sufficient to myself. I gave up the names of some of the same people who had earlier given up others. It's a nasty kind of circle, with terrible human costs and maybe a few political implications, but not much more. ...
I never felt I was betraying my country as I did this. I was betraying a whole series of other loyalties, though, the enormity of which came to me very soon.
On the effects of the information he sold to the Soviets:
First of all, the Soviet Union did not achieve victory over the West, so the question is: was my information inadequate to help them to victory, or did it play no particular role in their failure to achieve victory? ... In my own view, it certainly helped the counterespionage organs of the Soviet Union. ... It helped them to carry out their duties, which is to identify, find and prosecute people who've broken Soviet laws. Certainly it helped them. It certainly helped those counterintelligence specialists in the KGB who wanted to understand how the CIA worked and what the CIA was all about. They found themselves, no doubt, with much more information than they could ever possibly use in the short span of time left to them. ...
[But] there's another way of looking at it, which might be a little odd. ... Perhaps my information hurt the Soviet Union more than it helped. I have no idea. It was not something I ever discussed with the KGB officers that I was dealing with. I have no idea how this mass of information, starting with the dramatic impact of names [I revealed] -- and not really so much the names themselves but the organizations in which those names were embedded -- how that shock was really felt and perceived and worked itself out. ... There's no question in my mind it had to have discredited the KGB and the GRU tremendously. ... The overall effect had to be a devastating one on the intelligence agencies of the Soviet Union. ... It's my guess it was probably as harmful, overall, a development to Soviet interests (if we could ever agree on a definition of what those interests were) as it was a help.
I mean, I've speculated -- again, it has to be pure speculation -- that the impact of my reporting probably helped Gorbachev in his intra-party struggle to push glasnost and to push these reformist views in the Soviet Union, in at least the limited sense that Gorbachev, with [KGB chief Vladimir] Kryuchkov backing him up, could say, "Don't worry" to the opposition; [he] could say, "Don't worry -- you know, these guys ... were not penetrated to the hilt by the CIA." And that "This adviser, or that liberal or that liberal -- don't worry, we know they're not CIA agents undermining us." This is a crude way to put it, but it may have given Gorbachev ... valuable political cover, if you will, vis-a-vis the more hard-line and paranoid members of the leadership. But as I say, it's speculation.
So this all gets into the question of how was the Soviet Union helped, and that's a question that's just about impossible to answer. And how the United States was harmed -- well, as I said, the disappearance of those Soviet sources, their drying up, appeared to have had no effect on our intelligence collection and our ability to understand what's going on in the Soviet Union.
Espionage, for the most part, involves finding a person who knows something or has something that you can induce them secretly to give to you. That almost always involves a betrayal of trust: whether it's a Japanese businessman giving you some technical information that his company has entrusted him with; whether it's an official of another government who obviously has a position of trust within that government; whether it's the wife of a military officer whom you've induced to betray the trust placed in her by her husband, in order to get information that might enable you to recruit him. There's a betrayal of trust. Espionage revolves around the many different forms of betrayals of trust. ...
In any open-eyed view of things, it is corrupting to engage in such activities: corrupting to the person who does it [and] it's corrupting to the people or institutions who sponsor it. This is why espionage has never been respectable; this is why espionage has always been disreputable -- because people instinctively understand it. You know, I don't think the films of James Bond and romantic views of spies have done anything to alter the public revulsion to what espionage really is, any more than people -- despite law-and-order, tough-on-crime views -- are likely to really like the public hangman. That stench is there.
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