The 'wilderness of mirrors': Arrest of spy chief sparks tit-for-tat expulsions

THE AMERICAN intelligence community is lost once again in what one of its most famous forefathers, James Jesus Angleton, called 'the wilderness of mirrors'. One of its own, Aldrich Hazen Ames, is behind bars under suspicion of treason, and the reckoning of the damage he may have wrought has only just begun.

Meanwhile, as it struggles to contain a swell of indignation on Capitol Hill, the Clinton administration, faces a round of diplomatic tit-for-tat with Moscow after expelling a senior intelligence officer, late on Friday, from the Russian Embassy in Washington in protest over the affair.

The effect on the Central Intelligence Agency has been devastating. Staff broke down in tears as news of the arrest of Ames and his wife, Rosario, was relayed on Tuesday by director James Woolsey, on closed-circuit television throughout headquarters at Langley, Virginia. As the search began for other spies that may lurk within the organisation, some agents asked the CIA for psychiatric help.

British intelligence services are trying to judge whether their operations were compromised by Ames, who is charged with passing secrets for nine years to the Soviet Union, then the Russians, for payments totalling dollars 1.5m ( pounds 1m). 'In intelligence matters, we and the British hold hands absolutely,' one recently retired agent insisted.

British contacts, however, would not confirm or deny that MI5, after interviewing a Russian defector in Britain two years ago, gave US investigators the lead that identified Ames as a possible traitor. In a sombre statement, shortly before the embassy expulsion was announced, President Bill Clinton confirmed that, if the charges are true, there will have been 'significant damage to our national interests'.

In Moscow's first comment on the affair yesterday, a top Russian general in effect acknowledged that Ames had indeed been an agent. 'He worked there and worked for us. He defended our interests because he exposed spies who were pumping Russian secrets to the United States,' Lieutenant-General Mikhail Kolesnikov, chief of the General Staff, said. 'Did he inflict any harm to them (the Americans) or not? No, he did good for us.'

The Ames case represents the CIA's ultimate nightmare. Ames was a branch head for Soviet counter-intelligence in 1985, and held a similar post in the Rome Embassy during the late 1980s before returning to Washington. FBI investigators say 10 US agents may have been exposed and executed in the former Soviet Union because of information he passed over. Though the President would not confirm reports that the hunt has begun for other moles, he noted 'it sometimes happens that, when you're in a criminal investigation and you're on to something, the investigation turns up information that could not have been anticipated from the beginning'.

Significantly, while the Ames revelations have helped the CIA to explain a series of operation failures and personnel losses in the mid- to late-1980s, other incidents remain that it has not been able to link directly to him. 'We are having to proceed on the assumption that not all the apples that fell from the tree were from his shaking,' one official remarked.

There is also the daunting possibility for the CIA that Ames will attempt to blunt the allegations against him by 'greymailing' his former employer in court - in other words revealing potentially embarrassing secrets about the agency, its methods and specific operations he may have overseen. Ames's lawyer, Plato Cacheris, warned that his client would plead not guilty when charges are formally brought against him on Tuesday, and would in no way co- operate with the investigation. Contrary to earlier reports, Ames's wife also seems determined to fight the charges.

The chronically secretive CIA also faces pressure from Capitol Hill to review radically its own internal security procedures. Among the myriad questions is how it was possible that the Ameses' treachery had gone unnoticed for so long.

Ames and his wife, who drove a Jaguar and paid dollars 550,000 in cash for their suburban home, had evidently been living for years beyond what was possible on his CIA salary. And the fact that the five-yearly lie- detector tests - required under CIA security rules and which officials claim he underwent in 1986 and 1991 - failed to reveal anything untoward is causing concern.

Although few in the security community doubt that the allegations against the Ameses are true, the initial evidence assembled by a two-year, joint CIA- FBI investigation, laid out in an affidavit made public last Tuesday, seems to be mostly circumstantial. With the kind of detail you would expect in a John Le Carre novel, it includes snippets of bugged telephone conversations between Ames and his wife, apparently relating to arrangements for delivering information to the Russians in Washington at so-called 'dead- drops' and at face-to-face meetings in South America, and for receiving cash.

But investigators do not appear to have solid evidence of the contacts, such as photographs or film.

The affidavit has made famous one mail box on a street corner on the Russian diplomatic staff's route to their embassy. One taped telephone conversation apparently refers to arrangements for Ames to leave a chalk mark on the side of the box to indicate to the Russians that he was able to travel for a meeting in Bogota.

But it was the retrieval of a discarded type-writer ribbon from dustbins outside the Ames home last October that gave investigators their biggest break. They were able to reconstruct a message about a meeting between Ames and his Russian contacts in South America a year before.

The telephone tapes reveal Ames as, at the least, hen- pecked by his wife, whom he met while posted to Mexico City in the early 1980s. During what was allegedly a call to her from Bogota, Rosario harshly interrogates her husband about the trip:

'Nothing went wrong?' she asks.

'Yeah. That's right,' he replies.

'You swear?'

'Uh huh.'

'Well, you don't sound too sure. You're sure? Sure, right?'

'Sure.'

'You wouldn't lie to me, would you?'

And so on. Suspicions are increasing that Rosario was actually handling Ames for the Russians.

Criticised for not acting against the Russians more swiftly, Mr Clinton has been confronted by a diplomatic dilemma. While stressing the seriousness of the security breach, he does not want the incident to worsen delicate relations with Boris Yeltsin. Thus he is resisting demands from some in Congress to hold back aid.

'It is in our national interests to continue working with Russia,' he said on Friday, 'to lower the nuclear threshold, to support the development of Russia as a peaceful democracy.'

Helpfully for him, a CNN- USA Today poll, released on Friday, suggested two-thirds of Americans thought the US should continue to improve relations with Russia, regardless of the spy revelations.

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