On June 13, 1985, Aldrich Ames packed 5 to 7 pounds of classified documents into plastic bags, walked out of his office at the Central Intelligence Agency, and drove across the Potomac River to Chadwick's restaurant in Georgetown, where he handed them to a Soviet Embassy official during lunch.
This brazen delivery marked the biggest haul of stolen secrets ever turned over to the Soviets in a single meeting, but it turned out to be a mere installment. Before he was caught early last year, Ames made millions of dollars by passing to Soviet-and later Russian-intelligence agents every scrap of sensitive material he could get his hands on, causing huge losses for the CIA, the execution of 10 of its agents and the imprisonment of many more.
The case held the CIA up to devastating ridicule, exposing lack of vigilance by top officials. It also revealed, as David Wise, a veteran chronicler of the U.S. intelligence community, writes, that "the CIA, often portrayed as a wily covert manipulator of global events, is in fact a tired bureaucracy, living in the past, wearing blinders and deeply flawed."
At a minimum, the nation's $26 billion-a-year intelligence services need a harshly critical look and probably an overhaul if they are to have any value in a world of multiple new dangers like weapons proliferation and terrorism.
How could an agency so steeped in Cold War suspicion have overlooked a "mole" in its midst for so long, particularly one who flaunted a free-spending lifestyle of Italian suits, Jaguar, a half-million-dollar suburban house and Filipino servants?
Delving behind the year-old headlines for the answer, Mr. Wise's book and a second work by three New York Times reporters paint an even grimmer portrait of the agency than emerged at the time of Ames' arrest and subsequent guilty plea.
This wasn't just another case of an old-boys' network protecting its own, although the agency is wrestling with that problem as well.
True, Ames had a WASPy name and was the son of a CIA agent, who helped him get through the door initially. But many of the "old boys" couldn't stand Rick Ames. Like his father before him, he was a drunken mediocrity.
Rather, this was at least partly a case of inert, sloppy management guided by an "it-didn't-happen-on-my-watch" mentality. CIA managers filled job slots to meet bureaucratic prerogatives. They failed to demand minimum standards, respond to alarms or follow up on complaints.
At the agency, high performers got on a fast track; nonperformers got mid-level jobs and decent salaries and were simply ignored. In Ames' case, this led to disaster.
Despite often dismal job evaluations, naps after two-hour boozy lunches and embarrassing bouts of public drunkenness, Ames got one agency job after another that opened a gold mine of secrets.
When he first started spying, he was in charge of detecting intelligence operations directed against the agency worldwide, Mr. Wise writes in "Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million" (HarperCollins. 356 pages. $25). This gave him knowledge of every agent the CIA had hired within the tTC Soviet intelligence services. He also got the chance to debrief a prominent Soviet defector who later "redefected" to Moscow.
Generally lackluster at that post, he was sent to Rome. There, he had access to "daily reports on a wide variety of CIA operations around the world," according to "Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, an American Spy," by Times reporters Tim Weiner, David Johnston and Neil A. Lewis (Random House, 308 pages, $25). These reports, plus classified State Department papers, formed a six-inch-high daily stack of paper that even Ames' Soviet handlers complained was too much for them to digest.
Later, he filled a slot at the CIA's Counterintelligence Center, "the repository of all information about what the CIA was doing to the KGB," the three authors write.
He finally ended up at the Counternarcotics Center, supposedly an agency backwater but one that, Ames discovered, gave him computer access to "some of the CIA's most highly classified circuits," according to "Betrayal."
Of course it took a special combination of greed, low self-esteem, and general all-around nihilism to produce someone capable of the truly monumental betrayal Ames is credited with.
For Ames, there appears to have been the added sensation that for the first time, he was highly valued by his employers - namely, Soviet spymasters. If he ever felt any loyalty to the CIA, he abandoned it completely for the KGB, which at one point promised him a wooded, riverside "dacha" for his retirement. He held on to some of his handlers' messages for years, almost as keepsakes.
His CIA job performance in itself may not have been enough for anyone to question his loyalty. But together with his sudden, ill-explained wealth in the late 1980s, they were enough to raise strong suspicions. And in fact, a longtime colleague alerted the CIA's security branch as early as 1989.
Even this might not have been noteworthy except that the agency was still reeling from the virtual collapse of its spy network in the Soviet Union.
But the combination of all these factors - the red flags about Ames and the enormity of the crime committed - triggered little in the way of a response from the agency's leaders. The resulting internal CIA probe, though led by a dogged investigator, was so low-key and understaffed that it took years to zero in on Ames.
Worse - though less surprising, given the agency's self-protectiveness - is that it wasn't until 1991 that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in.
Agency directors William Webster and Robert Gates don't appear to have asked too many tough questions. The bottom line can be summed up by a quote in "Nightmover" from an unnamed intelligence official who has analyzed the Ames case. "The guys in charge aren't told and don't want to know."
Compounding the damage to the CIA were the clever tricks the Soviets played along the way, including the 1990 appearance of a Soviet defector with abundant information who later disappeared. "It took another year for the CIA to reach a devastating conclusion," write Mssrs. Weiner, Johnston and Lewis. "They'd been had."
More than a year after Ames' arrest, they still didn't have the whole story, according to the final chapter of "Betrayal." Officials preparing a final damage-assessment report "were beginning to believe that they would never get to the bottom of the case."
"The agency could not rid itself of the idea that Ames was still hiding something enormous." Even after confessing, Ames continued to flunk polygraph exams, they report.
This raises a scary question: Could Ames, in hopes of eventually dwelling in the riverside dacha, be covering up for another KGB mole in the agency?
In the history of the Cold War, the Ames case may not be all that important, even though the deaths of 10 valued agents were tragic, and the intelligence losses to the Soviets and the Russians were severe.
As a result of historical forces the CIA had no power to control, the Berlin Wall still fell, Eastern Europe still burst free from four decades of Soviet domination and the "evil empire" still collapsed. An irony is that an agency created to wage the Cold War may have played a lesser role than taxpayers imagined. Even in its analyses of what was happening to the Soviet Union, the CIA seems to have come up short.
"Betrayal" and "Nightmover" make compelling reading, both as espionage stories and as sobering tales of government. They show copious amounts of research for the relatively brief period between Ames' capture and publication. "Betrayal" is breezier, lapsing occasionally into spy-novel prose, and is the better beach book. It dwells a bit too heavily on the FBI hunt for Ames.
Clearly, the authors got substantial cooperation from the bureau's investigators. Inevitably, they fall into a "how-the-good-guys-finally-won" narrative.
"Nightmover" is more scholarly, but not tedious. Mr. Wise takes the time and space to draw some conclusions about the agency that deserve policymakers' attention.
* Mark Matthews, The Sun's diplomatic correspondent, has been covering national security issues since 1986. At that time, he covered the Iran-contra scandal. Before coming to The Sun, he was a reporter with the Wilmington News-Journal.