WASHINGTON -- In a stunning post-Cold War spy case, the FBI announced yesterday the arrest of a Central Intelligence Agency official and his wife -- both accused of spying for the Russians in a scandal that jolted fragile U.S.-Russia relations.
Aldrich Hazen "Rick" Ames was described by the White House as a "mid-level" CIA employee, but from 1983 to 1985 he headed the Soviet branch of the CIA's counterintelligence unit and in that capacity controlled information that literally meant life and death to U.S. spies operating in the Soviet Union.
A somber President Clinton, calling it a "very serious case," ordered aformal protest yesterday to the Russians here and in Moscow.
Mr. Ames, 52, and his Colombia-born wife, Maria del Rosario Casas Ames, 41, a part-time graduate student at Georgetown University, were arrested Monday after an investigation of at least 10 months that included searches of their household garbage, electronic eavesdropping on their personal computer messages, scrutiny of their bank accounts and surveillance of their movements.
The couple have not been formally charged and are scheduled to appear in federal court in Alexandria, Va., on Friday. They are being held without bail. If charged and convicted of conspiracy to disseminate classified information, they could receive sentences of up to life imprisonment and $250,000 in fines, the Justice Department said.
"This is the biggest spy case in U.S. history -- easily," said Ronald Kessler, author of a book about the FBI and CIA. "This was a guy who had access to almost everything the Russians wanted."
Mr. Kessler said he had been told of specific problems with Mr. Ames that should have set off alarm bells at Langley. He said that Mr. Ames complained about not having enough money after his divorce, lived too lavishly and was caught misusing a CIA safe house in New York when he had a liaison there with his girlfriend -- now his wife -- in 1986.
"That was a serious breach of security," he said. "They [the CIA] seriously screwed up."
The White House was engaged in a massive review to determine the extent of the damage to U.S. national security. But those familiar with the issue warned that Mr. Ames' sensitive position heightened the potential harm.
"Counterintelligence is the queen of the intelligence chess board," said Angelo Codevilla, a former staff member on the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Of all the catastrophes that can befall an intelligence service, this is by far the worst. It means that everything the other side does in espionage is assured of success and everything one [the U.S.] does is assured of failure."
"Counterintelligence is both offensive and defensive," he explained, "His job was to oversee American operations, to make sure they were clean, to make sure the other side didn't know about them. His job was to make sure that our operations over there are clean and that we are doing the very best we can to discover which of their people here are effective or not effective."
According to several intelligence analysts, the presence of a "mole," working first for the Soviets and then for the Russians, in a top-secret CIA position for the past eight years raised the possibility that segments of U.S. policy over the crucial years of transition from Cold War confrontation to peaceful partnership might have been based on flawed information deliberately fed to known CIA agents in Moscow.
Administration officials also fear it could have compromised the U.S. intelligence network inside the former Soviet Union, because as counterintelligence chief Mr. Ames would know the identities of spies working there for the United States.
Reports on spies
Jeffrey Richelson, a former CIA analyst and author of "The U.S. Intelligence Community," recalled that in 1986 -- a year after the Ames couple allegedly started to operate -- a U.S. spy in Russia, Adolf Polkachev, who supplied secret information on Soviet radar and aircraft, was arrested and executed. There were reports of six other U.S. spies also disappearing.
"It is probably fair to say it possibly compromised the entire human intelligence operation in the Soviet Union," said Mr. Richelson.
White House National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and CIA Director James R. Woolsey will spearhead an immediate comprehensive examination of what national security secrets -- or individuals -- have been compromised.
"We are a long way from knowing the full extent of this case," said a CIA official who requested anonymity.
At the White House, officials were looking forward to future harm rather than looking backward.
Mr. Clinton, who on his recent trip to Russia played the saxophone for Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin, appeared to react in an almost personal way to the case. Looking subdued and refusing to take questions, Mr. Clinton told reporters in the Rose Garden that he had instructed his top foreign policy officials to lodge strong protests with the Russian government.
Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher yesterday called Russian Charge d'Affaires Vladimir Chkhikvishivili to the State Department in Washington and instructed Thomas Pickering, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, to carry the administration's protest to senior officials in the Kremlin.
Criticism of Clinton
Mr. Clinton has come in for criticism that he and his administration's top Russia hand, Strobe Talbott, who was confirmed as deputy secretary of state by the Senate yesterday, are too cozy with Mr. Yeltsin. Mr. Clinton has had two summits with Mr. Yeltsin, fought in Congress for foreign aid for Russia, and staked some of his own prestige on bolstering the embattled Russian leader.
"We take this very seriously. We don't like it one bit," said Dee Dee Myers, the White House press secretary.
Mr. Christopher stressed the "seriousness" with which the administration viewed the Russian intelligence service's allegedly recruiting a U.S. government employee, but he has not withdrawn his invitation to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev for a meeting in Washington.
Mr. Clinton and his advisers, according to administration officials, want to use the case as a test of Russian intentions, to judge whether Mr. Ames was operating for the Yeltsin government or whether he was working for its intelligence service, which was acting independently.
Hoping to avoid the sort of tit-for-tat actions that followed spy arrests during the Cold War, the administration official said Russia could "rectify" the diplomatic situation by voluntarily recalling any diplomats in its Washington embassy involved in the case.
Court papers said the information that the Ames couple allegedly passed to the Soviets and Russians was to have been transferred in personal meetings abroad and through a series of "signal sites" (places used to indicated they had information to pass) and "dead drops" (the locations where the information was left for the foreign agents to pick up) in the Washington area. Previous spy cases here began when U.S. agents followed Soviet Embassy cars to various remote "drop" sites in suburban Maryland.