Reviews by Alec Chambers

Consolidated Review of

Adams, Sellout

Maas, Killer Spy

Weiner, Johnston, & Lewis, Betrayal


Wise, Nightmover

Adams, James. Sellout: Aldrich Ames and the Corruption of the CIA. New York: Viking, 1995. ISBN: 0-670-86236-3

Maas, Peter. Killer Spy: The Inside Story of the FBI's Pursuit and Capture of Aldrich Ames, America's Deadliest Spy. New York: Warner, 1995. ISBN: 0-446-51973-1

Wise, David. Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. ISBN: 0-06-017198-7

Weiner, Tim, David Johnston, and Neil A. Lewis. Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, An American Spy. New York: Random House, 1995. ISBN: 0-0679-44050-X

The expected rush of books dealing with the Ames case has begun and the first four books have appeared. At least a fifth (from Pete Earley) is expected.

Three of these books are by single authors with Adams and Wise having credentials in the intelligence and security arenas. Adams is the Washington bureau chief of the Sunday Times (London) and has extensive experience in the coverage of intelligence matters and his credits include The Financing of Terror and The New Spies. David Wise's impressive credits include coauthorship of The Invisible Government and the recent The Spy Who Got Away and Molehunt. Wise is also the only one of the authors to interview Ames. Peter Maas is best known for a series of well-received true crime (The Valachi Papers, Manhunt, and Serpico) and crime fiction (China White) books. The fourth is by a team of a reporter specializing in the CIA (Tim Weiner), federal law enforcement (David Johnston), and a general assignment correspondent (Neil A . Lewis) of the New York Times. As one might expect from such an experienced line up, all of the books are well-crafted and readable.

Of the four, Maas is the most narrowly focused. He concentrates on the FBI's role in the development of sources during the COURTSHIP program for recruitment of assets in the KGB's Washington rezidentura, and the ANLACE and NIGHTMOVER counterintelligence investigations following the loss of the sources. He spends little time dealing with the CIA aspects of the case and this has to be considered a problematic omission. Also, I found that more time was spent on the demonization of Rosario Ames than was really necessary. On the other hand, his description of the FBI's NIGHTMOVER operation, including the art of surveillance and of the external pressures on the investigators, is detailed and fascinating. In many ways, it helps one to understand the difference between counterintelligence as an aspect of intelligence operations and as a challenge in law enforcement.

Maas has written well and the book rolls along briskly. His long history of strong crime writing may be based on a respect for the confidentiality of his sources and this may have led to the lack of references or sources for any of the information in it. This contrasts with the other authors' careful acknowledgement of help from the main investigators.

The three remaining books are broader in their coverage of the case, covering the life and times of Ames, some coverage of his victims, and the CIA and FBI investigations. Thanks to the House and Senate oversight reports, the chronology of the case is well established and the differences between the books lie in the additional detail they are able to bring to the chronology.

Adams was the first to get on to the shelves; and although he produced a clear chronological telling and biographical research on Ames, the rush is shown by a number of (not necessarily major) mistakes and omissions. For example, he was unable to identify Jean Vertefeuille as the dogged female CIA investigator praised in the reports from the oversight committees. In addition, he deals with the case somewhat in isolation from other events.

Wise is more detailed in his coverage and is careful and complete with sources and background information.

Weiner et al are successful in placing the case in a broader context, measuring the Ames' rakish progress against the tempo of world events. A particularly important point that only Weiner brings out is that for much of Ames' second career many of the important decision makers in the CIA were too heavily distracted by the morass of the Iran-Contra affair to give the case the attention it really needed.

All four books look at some of the sources betrayed. Adams has a good section on Polyakov and also on Tolkachev, while Wise looks at several of the sources in greater detail. Weiner et al are briefer, but manage a brief listing of all of the then-known KGB sources betrayed by Ames.

Many of the espionage cases that affected the US in the 1980s appear to have impinged on the Ames case in some way or another. Adams sees such events as the Moscow embassy fiasco as a part of a deliberate strategy to protect Ames. The others take a more reasoned approach, believing that while the Soviets had been trying to protect Ames with false leads, they simply capitalized on a fortunate combination of events. The defection of Edward Lee Howard is also mulled over, especially by Wise and Weiner. The timing of the arrest of Tolkachev and the KGB investigation into Oleg Gordievsky do not appear to fit in with the theory that Ames betrayed them, but the timings would be consistent [with] Howard being the source. One of Wise's many footnotes includes a denial from Howard that he could have betrayed Tolkachev.

The body of each book follows two tracks, one is Ames and his actions, and the other is the identification of the leak and the building of the case against him. More is said about Ames than about the counterintelligence effort. The same stories, the same missed opportunities, appear in each version of the story. This would have been an ideal opportunity for a case study in the problems of counterintelligence. There are genuine problems with conducting effective CI in a country where civil liberties and a right to privacy are ingrained as they are in the US. Counterintelligence within an intelligence agency, or any other select group for that matter, demands a level of mutual suspicion and mistrust that corrodes the bonds that must hold that group together. Such behavior is quite alien to the American psyche nurtured in a belief in individual liberties. How is the balance between individual liberties and good security achieved? Where do you draw the line between CI as an aspect of intelligence collection and as law enforcement? How do you get members of a select group to balance need for trust and the necessary evil of suspicion without destroying trust and the group?

CI has one enduring bane: people are quite unwilling to believe that even the most odious member of their select group has willingly betrayed them. So how do you train people so that they can take the momentous step of identifying the man in the office next door as a possible mole? This problem is not new to the Ames case, or to the CIA. Even Stalin had problems dealing with possible traitors in his inner circle. It is not surprising that so much time was spent on acceptable explanations before the unthinkable could be thought in this case.

The final stages of these three books look at the after effects of the case on the CIA and especially on DCI Woolsey. Weiner et al are particularly eloquent in their description of the aftermath, especially on the struggles of Woolsey, and manage to raise many good points but restrain themselves when it comes to offering solutions. All of the authors observe the absurdity of allowing Ames to set the criteria for the discussion of the future of US intelligence. Adams in particular lays out his reasons for deciding not to interview Ames quite clearly as an aspect of this absurdity (which may explain why Ames didn't like Adams' book).

Adams' post-mortem is in much the same vein as Weiners, but his commentary is mixed, swinging from useful commentary and questions to muddled and hackneyed thinking. He suggests reforms largely along the lines suggested by former DCI Gates. Certainly, the case did not show the CIA in its glory, and the opportunity for careful and constructive criticism should be taken. Wise also gives a good analysis of Woolsey's tenure as DCI and makes some interesting comments on the CIA as a bureaucracy as well as some thoughts on human nature and the challenges of forbidden fruit.

None of the books leaves the reader with any more sympathy for Aldrich or Rosario Ames than one may have had before reading them. Most readers will probably agree with the comment that Benedict Arnold had more points in his favor than Ames. The overall impression of Ames is that of a venal twerp and a political naif who had had a few good years and a couple of good operations (he was involved in the handling of Arkady Shevchenko and had acquitted himself well), but who didn't really have that much going for him except a few friends and the occasional bit of luck.

The problem of resolving the perceived mediocrity and his steady progress has not been solved. There are some comments about strong performances in some areas, and the full story will ultimately have to give a better accounting of Ames' strengths, and some of his reported weaknesses, notably his drinking habits, that were apparently really not that much worse than those of many others in the Agency.

These books represent the first wave of the history of this important case: history as journalism. There is still a lot to be learned, and a lot to be reported. However, the reader who starts on the study of the case with either Wise or Weiner will have a sound foundation from which to work.

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