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CIA still reeling from discovery of 'worst traitor'

AS RUSSIA theatrically unveils an alleged mole working for Britain, a shattered intelligence community here is still clearing up the debris left by the accused spy, Aldrich 'Rick' Ames, the veteran CIA operative who may well be the most devastating agent ever recruited by Moscow in the United States.

Mr Ames, former head of the CIA's counter-intelligence operations against the Soviet Union, and his Colombian- born wife, Maria del Rosario, were arrested on 21 February and charged with nine years of spying for the KGB and its successor, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, for which federal prosecutors say they were paid dollars 2.5m ( pounds 1.7m).

Since then, the government has tried in vain to coerce the Ameses to transfer more than dollars 2m from Swiss and other foreign bank accounts back to the US. More important, it is engaged in delicate - and thus far unsuccessful - negotiations to secure a plea-bargain arrangement with the couple that would avoid a potentially embarrassing public trial.

A demoralised CIA has begun its own clean-up. Several of Mr Ames' superiors, who failed to respond to a host of clues to his possible treachery, are being eased out of the service. Security and vetting procedures of Agency employees are being stepped up, while internal and Congressional investigations are trying to establish the extent of the damage.

The case will not end there. The incident has re-ignited the feud between the CIA and the FBI, as the latter blames the Agency for failing to hand over data which could have allowed Mr Ames to have been unmasked far sooner. Once again, the FBI is demanding it be put in charge of US counter-intelligence investigations.

Under the current agreement, the two agencies run US- based investigations jointly, while the CIA alone handles those outside the country. But the FBI has been enraged by the CIA's two-year delay in passing on some highly questionable results of a 1991 lie-

detector test on Ames - proof, it says, of the CIA's inability to police itself.

Similar considerations explain the discreet search for a plea bargain. In a courtroom trial, defence lawyers almost certainly would query how the CIA ignored warning signals such as a way of life far beyond the means of a dollars 70,000 annual salary, while the prosecution would have to reveal top secret information involving Ames to make its case.

The Ameses do have some incentive to reach a deal. Given the severity of the charges, Mr Ames faces a life sentence whatever happens. But his wife might be offered a shorter term, enabling her at some point to be reunited with their five-year-old son.