Ames: Too Many Weaknesses
Aldrich Ames was a CIA employee for 31 years, mainly in the Directorate of Operations. He volunteered his services to the KGB in 1985. During the following nine years until his arrest in February 1994, Ames compromised over 100 intelligence operations against the Soviet Union and passed several thousand classified documents to the KGB and its successor organization, the Russian SVR. His betrayal led to the execution of 10 Soviet officials working for CIA. 1
In several different assignments, Ames' duties involved regular meetings with Soviet officials. As a long-time counterintelligence specialist, he was familiar with KGB personnel and methods of operation, and with CIA penetrations of the KGB and Soviet military intelligence, the GRU.
In response to financial pressures following his divorce and remarriage, Ames claims he conceived a scam in which he would pass the KGB worthless information in return for a one-time payment of $50,000. He gave them information on two Soviets who had volunteered to work for CIA and whom Ames knew, through a CIA agent within the KGB, were actually planted agents controlled by the KGB. Thus the material Ames passed to the KGB confirmed Ames' access to extremely sensitive information but caused little damage to CIA.
Shortly after receiving the $50,000, Ames voluntarily decided to continue the contact, and to immediately pass the KGB information on all of CIA's most important Soviet operations. Ames claims inability to reconstruct the thinking that transformed the one-time scam into long-term betrayal. He explained only that he was under considerable personal and professional stress at the time.
In his work performance as well as his performance as a spy, Ames illustrates many of the undesirable character traits associated with betrayal -- especially grandiosity, impulsiveness, and self-centeredness.
This account describes Ames as a person. Readers should keep two things in mind. First, no effort is made to present a balanced picture of Ames. It focuses entirely on the negative, with no discussion of those qualities that caused some supervisors to rate Ames as a valuable employee. Second, while each piece of derogatory information was known to someone, no one person had the total picture that is now available in retrospect. This is a common finding in the retrospective evaluation of persons arrested for espionage.
Alcohol abuse was the most obvious indicator that Ames was a poor security risk. Many employees who quietly suffer alcohol abuse or dependence never compromise security. It affects their home life and the quality of their work performance, but is not a direct security risk. For Ames, his uncontrolled behavior while under the influence of alcohol was, at least in retrospect, a clear indication of potential security problems. The following list of alcohol abuse incidents is significant not so much for what it tells about Ames' alcohol use, as for what it tells about Ames as a person -- his irresponsibility and lack of self-control. This record of alcohol abuse certainly indicates that he failed the official criteria for a security clearance -- that he be "stable; trustworthy; reliable; of excellent character, judgment, and discretion..."
In his entrance-on-duty polygraph examination in March 1962, Ames admitted that in November 1961 he and a friend, while inebriated, had "borrowed" a delivery bicycle from a local liquor store, were picked up by the police, and subsequently released with a reprimand. In April 1962, he was arrested for intoxication in the District of Columbia. He was arrested for speeding in 1963 and for reckless driving in 1965; Ames later stated that at least one of these incidents was alcohol-related.
At a Christmas party at CIA Headquarters in 1973, Ames became so drunk that he had to be helped to his home by employees from the Office of Security. At an office Christmas party in 1974, he became intoxicated and was discovered by an Agency security officer in a compromising position with a female CIA employee.
In Mexico City during 1981-1983, Ames had a reputation of regularly having too much to drink during long lunches. At one diplomatic reception where he drank too much, he became involved in a loud and boisterous argument with a Cuban official. This alarmed his supervisors and prompted a recommendation to CIA Headquarters that he be assessed for alcohol abuse when he returned to the United States. On another occasion, when he was involved in a traffic accident in Mexico City, he was so drunk that he could not answer police questions nor recognize the US Embassy officer sent to help him. (Routine periodic background investigation in 1983 noted only that Ames was inclined to become a bit enthusiastic when he overindulged in alcohol. It failed to find a serious alcohol problem.)
In Washington in 1984 or 1985, after consuming several drinks at a meeting with an approved Soviet contact, Ames continued to drink at a CIA-FBI softball game until he became seriously inebriated. He had to be driven home that night and left behind at the field his badge, cryptic notes, a wallet which included alias identification documents, and his jacket.
One of Ames' supervisors recalled that he was drunk about three times a week during his tour in Rome from 1986 to 1989. He would go out for long lunches and return to the office too drunk to work. On one occasion in particular, he returned from an agent meeting too drunk to write a cable to Washington as directed by his supervisors. At an embassy reception in 1987, he got into a loud argument with a guest, left the reception, passed out on the street, and woke up the next day in a local hospital. One colleague said Ames began to drink more heavily in 1987 after he failed to receive an expected promotion. The station security officer brought Ames' drinking habits to the attention of the Chief of Station. After Ames' arrest, his wife told FBI debriefers that alcohol was partly to blame for their marriage falling to pieces during their Rome tour, and for their having numerous fights.
While assigned to CIA Headquarters during 1990 to 1994, Ames was noted for his tendency to sleep at his desk after a long lunch. In 1992, Ames became so intoxicated during a liaison meeting with foreign officials that he made inappropriate remarks about CIA operations and personnel and then passed out at the table.
In his routine behavior as an Agency employee, Ames seemed predisposed to accidentally violate or deliberately ignore many rules and regulations. This was not done for personal profit, however. So far as is known, there was no petty theft or fraud typical of a predisposition toward antisocial or criminal behavior. It appears to be more a case of grandiosity, of feeling that he was above the rules, that security and other mundane procedures followed by others did not merit his attention. This is exemplified by the following.
In 1976, while on his way to meet a CIA source in New York, Ames left a briefcase of classified materials identifying the source on a subway train. Although the briefcase was ultimately recovered by the FBI, it might well have compromised the source. In 1980 he left Top Secret communications equipment unsecured in his office.
In Mexico City during 1981-1983, he failed to report his "close and continuing" intimate relationship with a foreign national, Rosario Casas Dupuy, who later became his wife. In 1984, he used poor judgment by bringing his then-mistress, Rosario, to CIA operational housing where CIA undercover officers were staying. In 1985, while assigned to the debriefing of Soviet KGB defector Vitaliy Yurchenko, Ames violated security by taking his mistress to the safe house where Yurchenko was staying. Also in 1985, he had a security violation for leaving his safe open.
In Rome from 1986 to 1989, he was known to prepare classified reports at home on his personal computer. He often left the safe open when leaving for the day, and he ignored security regulations that require reporting of all foreign travel.
On a trip to a conference in Turkey in 1993, Ames took with him a personal laptop computer on which he had classified information. Regulations prohibit using personal computers for classified material. The classified material was seen, and later reported to Office of Security, by his boss who asked to use the laptop for games.
Any one or two of these violations would not be particularly noteworthy. What is noteworthy is the number of violations and their persistence over a prolonged period of time. Ames' disdain for security carried over into his espionage activity for the Soviets, where he failed to follow basic security precautions expected of any intelligence officer. For example, the personal laptop computer Ames allowed his CIA boss to use also contained a file of messages to his KGB case officer! Ames' poor security practices indicate an inability or unwillingness to follow the basic rules of his profession.
Ames was also predisposed to ignore or violate various administrative and operational reporting requirements. Throughout his career, Ames' supervisors frequently counseled and reprimanded him for failure to provide timely accountings and properly maintain his revolving operational funds. For a DO operations officer, this is more than a question of financial responsibility. Accounting for operational funds provides DO managers with another means of monitoring and verifying activities of the operations officers they supervise.
Ames also failed to file timely contact reports on many of his operational meetings with foreign officials, including Soviets. This failure may initially have been related to his laziness and disdain for regulations. It became more calculated after he volunteered to the KGB and used open and approved meetings with Soviets officials as cover for passing packages of classified documents.
Ames' overweening confidence that he could conduct a successful scam against the KGB is certainly indicative of grandiosity.
Ames' initial contact with the KGB was financially motivated, but Ames himself could not explain why he continued after satisfying his immediate financial needs. His wife, Rosario, stated in a TV interview: "I don't think he did it for the money.... A great part of it has to do with wanting to prove to the world that he is better, more intelligent. It was arrogance." 2
Rosario's explanation suggests grandiosity as a driving force in Ames' betrayal. Once immediate needs were met, the money was important not just for what it bought, but as a visible indicator of success for a man whose inflated self-esteem was undermined by relative lack of career success and inability to support his new wife in the style to which she was accustomed. Even more important, perhaps, was the satisfaction Ames gained from outsmarting the CIA superiors whom he felt had failed to recognize his abilities. After receiving money from the Soviets, Ames' insecure display of wealth may have been motivated by the same driving need to validate an inflated self-image that caused him to become a Soviet spy in the first place.
If the essence of impulsiveness is the short-term gratification of desires without thinking out the long-term consequences, then Ames' decision to run what he calls a scam against the KGB was certainly impulsive. As soon as the scam was successful, he had second thoughts. In an interview with Sen. Dennis DeConcini, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Ames explained that he volunteered to continue passing information because he realized the enormity of what he had done, "that I had crossed a line which I had not clearly considered before...that I crossed a line I could never step back."
Ames also realized, belatedly, that he would have to compromise immediately all CIA sources in the KGB in order to protect the security of his own contact with the KGB.
Less dramatic evidence of impulsiveness is available in other aspects of Ames' behavior. Certainly his drinking offers multiple examples of lack of self-control. Impulsive individuals tend to do what they want to do rather than what they ought to do, and this leads to a number of characteristics often found in such persons -- carelessness, laziness, inattention to detail, inability to tolerate boring or routine activity.
All these weaknesses have been attributed to Ames. If an activity wasn't exciting and stimulating, he just wasn't too interested. This may explain his inattention to administrative and routine operational reporting. It may also explain why he obtained far better evaluations in some assignments than in others.
The Inspector General report on Ames refers to his "selective enthusiasm." It observes that "with the passage of time, Ames increasingly demonstrated zeal only for those few tasks that captured his imagination while ignoring elements of his job that were of little personal interest to him."
Colleagues described Ames as overbearing and noted that this aggravated the perception of him as a poor performer. The extent to which various characteristics of self-centeredness were apparent prior to Ames' arrest is not clear from the unclassified record. After the arrest, Ames and his wife both referred to his arrogance.
Ames told a New York Times interviewer: "I got myself in a position where I thought, and still think -- call it arrogance, if you will -- but I'd say: 'I know what's better. I know what's damaging and I know what's not damaging, and I know what the Soviet Union is really all about, and I know what's best for foreign policy and national security....and I'm going to act on that.'" 3
Lack of empathy for others is another element of self-centeredness. This is amply demonstrated by Ames' callous attitude toward the Soviet officials who had been cooperating with American intelligence, and whom the Soviets executed after they were betrayed by Ames.
Betrayal is always a product of circumstance as well as human weakness. In Ames' case, the financial pressures of divorce combined with remarriage to a woman with extravagant spending habits triggered his action.
There were a number of other facilitating factors. Given the nature of his position, Ames could have no doubt that he would be welcomed and handsomely rewarded by the KGB. The opportunity to meet with Soviet officials and enter the Soviet Embassy with CIA approval made the initial contact invitingly simple; it eliminated a significant element of risk in initiating and maintaining the contact. Ames understood and knew how to avoid the routine counterintelligence measures intended to catch Soviet spies.
As other factors that facilitated his decision, Ames cited his lack of concern that he would soon be subject to a reinvestigation polygraph and his fading respect for the value of his Agency work as a result of lengthy discussions with Soviet officials.