Aldrich Hazen Ames, 52, was head, between 1983 and 1985, of the highly sensitive Soviet section of the agency's counter-intelligence division. Throughout his career at the agency one of his prime tasks was recruiting Soviet agents to work for the US.
He and his Colombian-born wife Maria del Rosario, were arrested by FBI agents on Monday and charged with passing details of CIA personnel and operations to the KGB and then after 1992 to its successor, the Russian foreign intelligence service. If convicted they face life imprisonment.
President Bill Clinton described the case as 'very serious' yesterday. Hours later, the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, lodged a formal protest with the Russian government about the case, which could have significant repercussions on relations between the countries. It comes just as they are jockeying to promote a Bosnian settlement, amid growing nationalist pressures within Russia.
The Ameses had been under investigation for two years, although suspicions of a high-level Soviet 'mole' within the CIA date back to at least 1985. Long before that James Angleton, head of counter- intelligence until 1974, had been obsessed with the belief that the agency had been penetrated.
According to a 40-page indictment made public yesterday, the couple had been spies since 1985. The authorities may have been tipped off by a KGB defector. Aldrich Ames met Soviet agents abroad and in Washington, where he passed information by means of elaborate 'dead drops' in and around the capital. The couple received large amounts of cash, some of which they deposited in Swiss banks. The rest they spent.
At the time of his arrest, Mr Ames was working in the CIA's anti-narcotics division, at a salary of dollars 69,800. But the couple had bought a dollars 540,000 house in the smart Washington suburb of Arlington, dollars 165,000 of stocks and shares and a dollars 25,000 Jaguar car. They also ran up credit card bills of dollars 50,000 a year between 1985 and 1993.
A life-long CIA employee, Mr Ames divided his career between headquarters in Langley, Virginia and foreign postings in Ankara, Rome and Mexico City, where his wife also worked for the agency.
The case began to harden last June, when a search of his office turned up top secret papers that had 'no relationship' to his narcotics job. The Ameses' home was placed under electronic surveillance. Three months later, according to the indictment, the FBI found a computer tape in a bin outside the Ameses' house containing incriminating evidence of a meeting between Mr Ames and a Russian contact in Venezuela in 1992.
Just what secrets Mr Ames betrayed probably not even the US authorities can be sure. The indictment mentions his informing his handlers in December 1990 of a KGB counter-intelligence officer working secretly for the CIA. It is not clear whether the Ameses were part of a larger ring, or whether Russian diplomats and agents here would be expelled in retaliation. But given Mr Ames's position the damage could be devastating.
Not only would he have been able to pass over details of CIA operations in Moscow and throughout the former Soviet bloc, he could also have protected Soviet agents in the US from discovery. 'He may have told the Russians everything the CIA was doing in Moscow, everything they hadn't been told by Edward Lee Howard,' David Wise, intelligence specialist and author of a biography of Howard, said yesterday. Howard, who worked in the CIA, defected to Moscow in 1986.
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