Washington. -- The CIA is a house shaken.
Its first senior officer to be accused of spying is under interrogation to try to discover just how much damage he did in the nine years he worked for the Soviets and Russians in the heart of the agency. The short answer is: a lot. And the intelligence community inside the agency's fenced headquarters at Langley, Va., is both stunned and embarrassed.
But if James Jesus Angleton, the agency's legendary chief of counter-intelligence, were alive today he would be saying: "I told you so." For more than two decades he was convinced that the Soviets had planted a "mole" in the organization,
In the precise terms of spy-speak, Aldrich Hazen Ames should not be described as a "mole," but he is accused of being the next best thing, a straightforward spy. A "mole," by definition of author John le Carre who coined the term in the best-seller "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," is a Soviet-trained agent buried deep in an organization who remains dormant until activated by his spymasters.
According to court documents, Mr. Ames was recruited by the Soviets 23 years after he started working at the CIA. His espionage training was all-American. And he allegedly started feeding the Soviets information immediately.
The only other CIA official ever accused of treachery was Edward Lee Howard, an espionage trainee who was uncovered in 1985 by a routine lie detector test and fired. To avoid spying charges, Mr. Howard fled to Moscow, where he now lives.
From its origins in 1947 as a successor to the World War II Office of Strategic Services, the CIA developed "a kind of caste pride in its own purity," according to Angelo Codevilla, author of "Informing Statecraft: Intelligence for a New Century."
Mr. Codevilla, who for eight years was a senior staff member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which oversees the agency, said: "They worked on the assumption that all of our guys are pure."
If that was generally true, James Angleton, a thin, chain-smoking, elegant former OSS spy-catcher and Anglophile with a taste for poetry and three-piece suits, was the exception that proved the rule.
As he built up the organization's counter-intelligence unit, he became convinced that the Soviets had penetrated the agency. The notion consumed his mind to the point of becoming an obsession.
In his book "Molehunt: The Secret Search for Traitors That Shattered the CIA," David Wise reported that 50 CIA agents were investigated as suspected agents during the Angleton years, without any Soviet penetration of the organization being uncovered.
Mr. Angleton was eventually ousted in 1975, but not before many agents' reputations were tarnished and their careers ruined by unfounded accusations. The agency later made amends to the victims by compensatory payments under a scheme that became known within the agency as the "Mole Relief Act."
Mr. Angleton's departure produced another CIA mind-set: an aversion to witch-hunts and a more routine reliance on lie-detector tests.
"Certainly no-one wanted a repeat of the Angleton era with respect to chasing around innocent people," said Jeffrey Richelson, author of "U.S. Intelligence Community" and a consultant to the National Security Archives.
This was the atmosphere when the Soviets allegedly recruited Rick Ames in the mid-1980s. His CIA job, ironically, was to recruit Soviet diplomats to work for the United States.
In turning the tables, the Soviets achieved an espionage coup of incredible proportions, gaining access not only to the agency's modus operandi but to the identities of agents working for the United States in the Soviet Union.
Another crucial post-Angleton change took place. The importance of Mr. Angleton's central counter-intelligence unit was downgraded, and more authority was given to the individual counter-intelligence branches covering specific countries. This increased the responsibilities of the chief of counter-intelligence in the Soviet branch, giving him more power over which agents to recruit and which operations to conduct in the Soviet Union. In 1983, Mr. Ames got that job.
He was able to beat two lie-detector tests, one in 1986, when, according to the FBI, he was a raw recruit, and another in 1991, when he had allegedly earned and spent most of the $1.5 million court papers say he received from his spymasters. A review of how the polygraph tests are administered -- particularly the questions asked -- is now under way.
For the CIA, the compromising episode has come at a critical time. With the Cold War over, the focus of espionage is necessarily changing toward the new threats of regional conflict, weapons proliferation, drugs and terrorism.
Its satellite surveillance even provided early warning of a weakened levee during the Midwest floods, and its agents are actively engaged in protecting the interests of U.S. companies, uncovering attempts by foreign competitors to bribe their way into international contracts. All this is the new order of business.
Like most government agencies, its budget is being cut, and the search is on for efficiency, not just in its espionage operations but in its everyday management.
For its new director, R. James Woolsey, the timing of the Ames case could hardly have been worse. The news broke the day he was due to explain his fiscal 1995 budget to the House Intelligence Committee. Four days later, it overshadowed his presentation to the same panel of his plans to modernize the agency.
He said wryly, "I am reminded of the old Chinese curse: 'May you live in interesting times.' "
Making the best of a bad situation, he tried to offset the devastating Ames development by listing some of the agency's recent successes:
* Its warning of the danger of hyper-inflation in Russia, borne out by the departure of reformers Yegor Gaydar and Boris Federov from the government and the retreat from economic reforms;
* Its prediction that a candidate favoring separation from Ukraine and union with Russia would win the presidential election in the Crimea, fulfilled last month when Yuri Meshkov was elected and appointed three pro-secessionist military officers as his top advisers;
* Its prediction of increased fighting in Somalia in advance of U.S. troops being withdrawn.
Ironically, the Ames scandal has strengthened the case for a strong U.S. intelligence network, reminding politicians and the public alike that the end of the Cold War has not brought an end to espionage. What Mr. Ames allegedly did for the Soviets, he continued to do for the Russians, prompting new diplomatic strains between Washington and Moscow.
It has now dawned on lawmakers that while the ideological spur to espionage has dwindled, the temptation of monetary gain may actually have been increased by the reasoning that selling secrets today does not put the nation in as much danger as it used to during the Cold War.
Overnight, members of Congress recalled that in 1990, lapsed into their own false sense of security in the euphoria of the fall of the Berlin Wall, they shelved a piece of legislation that might have saved the CIA and the nation from a new espionage scandal. It was a bill mandating all government employees with "top secret" clearance to agree to impromptu scrutiny of their financial and credit records throughout their government careers and five years after.
The most superficial scrutiny of Mr. Ames' finances would have revealed that, according to court papers, he paid cash for a $540,000 house and rang up $455,000 in credit charges, sums large enough to sound immediate alarm bells about a civil servant who never earned more than $70,000 a year.
The legislation was introduced four years ago by Sen. David Boren, the Oklahoma Democrat who then chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Sen. William S. Cohen, a Republican from Maine.
Observed Mr. Boren last week: "Senator Cohen and I could not get too much attention for our proposal at the time, but perhaps with the Ames case we have a better chance now."
That is certain. The bill has already been re-introduced. But it will be only one of many measures needed to rebuild confidence, both inside and outside the fence in Langley, in the nation's shaken intelligence agency.
Gilbert Lewthwaite is a correspondent in the Washington bureau of The Baltimore Sun.