by Trowbridge H. Ford
When Rick and Rosario Ames pleaded guilty to two charges of conspiring to commit espionage, and two of tax fraud on April 28, 1994, the CIA, FBI, and the Oval Office feared that it was just the tip of what had gone terribly wrong - at least 45 operations - explaining why the Justice Department had agreed to the plea-bargains in the first place. When operations of covert government start to unravel, no one can be sure what it will reveal, and where it will stop. The only way to stop the rot is to take serious steps to divert the public's attention away from what is really threatened, and along lines of inquiry which can be controlled to a soft landing for covert organizations and operatives.
The scope of the problem was dramatically demonstrated when President Clinton and DCI James Woolsey visited the former Soviet Union in the summer of 1993. Clinton went there to bolster up President Boris Yeltsin's sagging efforts to reclaim 170 Russian ICBMs from the independence-seeking Ukraine, while Woolsey wanted to engage in a bit of Agency damage control, using former Leningrad station chief Freddie Woodruff, a suspected mole, as a guinea pig in a showdown with Yevgeny Primakov's Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the KGB's successor. Woodruff was then in Georgia, assisting equally beleaguered Eduard Shevardnadze's intelligence service assess the level of Russian infilitration of the country's north. Both Georgia and Ukraine were paranoid about Russia trying to reassert control over them.
At a lunch in honor of Woolsey in Moscow on August 9th, Primakov, a protege of the deceased Yuri Andropov, showed his complete opposition to what Clinton was attempting by comparing the Ukrainians to reckless children who had gotten their hands on dangerous weapons, and were experimenting with what they could do with them. Clinton foreign policy adviser Strobe Talbot has explained in The Russia Hand that Primakov's patronizing attitude towards them was matched with a mistrust that Washington was trying to encircle Russia by coopting its former republics and allies. (p. 80) To make this less likely, the SVR then assassinated Woodruff with a single shot to the head as he was travelling along the border with Russia, indicating in the process that he was not the mole. Woolsey then had the unpleasant task of escorting Woodruff's body back to the States
Clinton was most interested in containing the scandal for fear that the activities emanating from Mena's Intermountain Regional Airport, as the killings of whistle blowers Paul Wilcher and Luther 'Jerry' Parks had demonstrated, would lead to him, and the Agency was not far behind, arranging the murders of Olof Palme assassination suspect Viktor Gunnarsson on December 4th, and Mrs.Catherine Miller, mother of the former girl friend of probable fall guy for the Gunnarsson shooting, former North Carolina policeman L. C. Underwood, a few days later. The mole hunters pursuing Ames had to wait until these damage-control operations were well in place, and Clinton's National Security Adviser Tony Lake could stage the ruse that Ames was advising the President about his Black Sea Initiative for combating the drugs trade before making his arrest on President's Day, February 21, 1994.
Clinton had all the back channel connections necessary to arrange the cover up of Ames's spying: intelligence expert George Tenet on the National Security Council (NSC) to take advantage of his work with the Senate Intelligence Committee, former CIA station chief in Stockholm Jennone Walker and now also on the NSC to alert Langley, especially chief mole hunter now and chief of the Soviet division's CI Group back then, Paul Redmond, of what was at stake, and Clinton crony and now Deputy Attorney General Webster Hubbell to make the necessary arrangements. It was a team which knew what bureaucratic fights to initiate, and which ones to win.
Tenet knew were all the bodies were buried, having been an aide to Senator John Heinz, serving on the staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee during Reagan's second term when the operations occurred, and its staff director during George H. W. Bush's presidency when they had to be covered up. In 1993, he moved into the Clinton White House where he established such a reputation for getting things done that he became CIA's Deputy Director when Woolsey resigned, though he had no intelligence experience or background of the usual kind. (Thomas Power, Intelligence Wars, p. 378) Little wonder that when Clinton's sharpest critics started making up their lists of hits he had apparently ordered, the death of Heinz, apparently a player in the *October Surprise', headed them. Walker did her job so well that she was soon made American Ambassador to the Czech Republic. Hubbell hung around long enough to get the necessary cover ups going before going to jail himself.
Watergate had proved a salutory lesson for all concerned - as was demonstrated by how the Iran-Contra scandal was handled. If responsible authorities don't seem at least to be responding positively to alleged wrong-doing - getting on top of the story - they would be suspected of stone-walling necessary public inquiries - what finished off Nixon, and threatened Clinton. Public officials are not given the private protection of assumed innocence, and a need of proving them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before they can be judged. If cries of scandal emerge, officials are seen to be guilty unless they can prove otherwise - what leads to a pre-emptive approach to charges of malfeasance in office.
Yet, if such an approach is adopted too vigorously to suspected scandal, all kinds of things can turn out to be unexpected disasters. Even the seemingly most innocent and routine actions - like an agent having lunch with an enemy operative or a double agent meeting his handler - can turn out to be part of yet another plot, and if investigated, can provide even more dangerous blowback. Highly complicated secret operations can be compromised at almost any level, and to determine who and how the operation was betrayed is a most laborious, problematic, upsetting exercise, explaining why intelligence organizations have avoided them if at all possible.
This introduction seems most called for when one considers the most authoritative explanation of Ames's spying - what Thomas Powers, the biographer of DCI Richard Helms, and his greatest apologist, supplied in a review of four books about the scandal, entitled "No Laughing Matter", for the August 10, 1995 issue of The New York Review of Books. Powers concluded that such a scandal was ultimately bound to happen to CIA, especially since the signs of Rick's spying could not have been more obvious, and more destructive in its consequences for his former Agency colleagues, particularly DCI Woolsey, though no one should ever consider any serious case of alleged spies or spying closed. The extreme secrecy under which Ames operated, as the title of the review indicated, almost lost the Cold War for the West, Powers concluded, but just how he never explained nor did David Wise, the most revealing observer of the works under review.
All this is the worst kind of history writing - where everything is explained by using a rear-view mirror approach to what happened. Of course, after motoring along with the Ameses for nine years, there was plenty to be seen back there, but the meaning of it, except for the wealth they had amassed, and the actual American spies the Soviets had apparently disposed of, still remains a mystery. How Ames almost lost the Cold War, and cost Woolsey his career are never explained. It was not on Woolsey's watch that Ames did all his spying, and when it was fully disclosed, the DCI resigned. While Ames's spying might have seemed as clear as day, Powers still had to rely upon a possible unnamed defector that Walter Pincus of The Washington Post suggested to close the case - what Powers earlier asserted should never be done.
The Ames case is simply not one that could have been predicted, made the Cold War much more perilous, and has been adequately explained, as Powers has claimed. Ames had been performing fairly well until Operation Courtship got going - an operation increasingly geared towards catching the Soviets flat-footed in some deep covert mission, thanks to feedback, real and contrived, from double agents back in the USSR. And they were mostly sleepers, expected to pop up at just the right moment with some alarming or disarming claim. It was this threat which forced Ames's betrayal - not any kind of personality fault - but there was little chance that others would notice it because of the complexity of what was being planned.
Consider when Ames made a hurried, unannounced visit to Viktor Cherkashin, the KGB counterintelligence chief in the Washington Embassy, on February 14, 1986 after he had been debriefed by defecting double agent Oleg Gordievsky about ongoing operations. Now Ames had identified for Moscow Gordievsky as an MI6 and CIA asset the previous June 13th., but he had still been allowed to make a miraculous escape from the USSR five weeks later so he could provide Ames with new input when he was debriefed. The KGB was already suspicious of Gordievsky's bona fides because of his activities in the London residency, and Ames had confirmed his spying for London and Washington, though, they, of course, did not know it then.
Ames apparently told Cherkashin that the assassination of statsminister Olof Palme in Stockholm (Operation Tree) before the March-scheduled, NATO Anchor Express Exercise was to trigger a non-nuclear showdown with Moscow - what KGB FCD head Vladimir Kryuchkov took the necessary countermeasures to prevent, and KGB Chief Viktor Chebrikov unprecedentedly explained to the world's media just before Palme was assassinated.
Now Washington and London had no sure-fire way of knowing that either Ames was the mole or that Chebrikov was telling the truth. Quite possibly, Ames was told to tell the CI chief in the Embassy that the planned showdown with Moscow had been scrubbed - what was intended to leave Moscow flat-footed when the assassination occurred - and Ames felt obliged to tell the Soviets what was really in the works to prevent the world from going up in smoke. Then the FBI agents involved in the whole process - Operation Courtship - had not informed superiors of the unscheduled visit - what may have been just more of the plan to fool the Soviets or due to additional spying for Moscow - what it turned out to be, by the Bureau's Robert Hanssen.. And there were similar possibilities and problems all the way along the line, from stations in the USSR to double agent handlers in Courtship in the USA.
After the operations had been attempted, Anglo-American covert government was somewhat in a quandry to determine what had happened. While the Stockholm shooting had gone ahead as planned, the showdown with the Soviets at sea never materialized. For American and British counterintelligence experts, the problem, if there was one, was to determine what had gone wrong, and why. The main objective, the assassination of Palme, had been achieved, as there was no way that Moscow could have prevented it - any warning would have been interpreted as Soviet provocation towards Sweden, probably intended to set up its own pre-emptive strike, as the Swedish Security Service, Säpo, was claiming.
The signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Moscow leader Mikhail Gorbachev the
following year, establishing the zero option about intermediate-range missiles, put to rest many of the fears which had spawned the plot for a non-nuclear showdown with the Soviets in the first place. Then the Soviet leader had conveniently confused Washington by taking along Kryuchkov, the official who foiled the coup, as part of the Soviet delegation. Kryuchkov, thanks to information that Gordievsky had supplied Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew about the Kremlin's alleged paranoia about an Anglo-American first strike, had long been an object of railery in the West, but Gorbachev had the last laugh, especially when Kryuchkov indicated to DCI Robert Gates that Gordievsky might well have been the mole since he was promised "a good job with a lot of security" if he returned to the Soviet Union. (Quoted from Christopher Andrew, For the President's Eyes Only, p. 499.)
Then the arrest, and punishment, usually by execution, of all the compromised Soviet double agents was not something immediate, and obvious to Western CI officials. Given the compartmentalized character of these operations, there was no single authority responsible for assessing the damage, and its sources. Most of the double agents had simply failed to perform their assigned or expected tasks, and it was only later that the Agency learned that they had been compromised or operating under KGB control.
Sergei Motorin, for example, failed to call his girl friend in the States to tell her, in code, that the Soviets had been caught unawares by the Stockholm shooting, though the KGB had regained control of his actions due to a number of reasons long before the assassination. He was arrested the day after he last saw his US handlers, leaving them uncertain about when and why he had been compromised. It was only a year after the Stockhom shooting that he was tried, and executed.
Valery Martynov was thought to be in an ideal position to trigger deadly measures when he accompanied defector Vitaly Yurchenko back to Moscow as part of his honor guard, only to discover when he arrived that he had been betrayed. It was a year and a half later when he was executed that his handlers learned of his fate.
Others, like the GRU's Major General Dimitri Polyakov - who DCI Woolsey compared to the legendary Oleg Penkovsky during the Cuban Missile Crisis - and the KGB's Boris Yuzhin, were no longer active, so Washinton only learned for sure of their betrayals when their punishments were announced. Polyakov was arrested 15 months after Operation Tree had occurred. It was in 1990 that the Soviets announced that Polyakov had been caught, only later admitting that he had been executed on March 15,1988. Yuzhin was sentenced to 15 years in a gulag for high treason just before the Palme assassination, indicating to the ignorant that it had not been the cause of his incarceration.
And the Soviets took all kinds of steps to hide what it knew and how, especially making it appear that spies' exposure was not the result of a mole, and what countermeasures it was taking against the spies in their midst, despite Ames's claims to the contrary. The most confusing efforts were the handiwork of 'Mr. X', someone feigning to be the Lisbon-based double agent Gennady Smetanin, who explained that exposures had been the result of the KGB tapping all the messages the CIA sent
and received at its communications center in Warrenton, Va. - what had apparently led to Gennady Varenik's capture but not Smetanin's.
Then the KGB had supplied its own mole, code-name EASTBOUND, to keep alive confidence in Operation ABSORB, the cargo container filled with advanced technology being shipped across the USSR
to keep track of Moscow's most secret messages and responses while the countdown to Palme's murder was taking place. Only after the Stockholm shooting did the CIA learn that the container had been seized on January 24th, and on May 7th, Erik Sites was arrested while trying to make contact with EASTBOUND. "The CIA would not learn until several years later that EASTBOUND had been a 'dangle' ," Pete Earley explained in Confessions of A Spy, "a KGB officer who had volunteered to spy specifically to entrap a CIA officer and pass along bad information." (p. 200)
In this context, the use of lie-detectors on any suspected spy, whatever their limitations in discovering the truth, is even more unreliable than usual because almost everything is prone to uncertainty, anxiety, and deception - explaining why the Agency never relied upon it in Ames's case, even after he was arrested. In fact, it agreed to the plea-bargains before Ames had really admitted anything. It was only after the plea-bargains had been accepted that Ames told the FBI that he had given the names of every double-agent he knew of to the KGB during his years of spying.
While Woolsey and Clinton were confident that this was the end of the matter, they were sadly mistaken. The DCI had already ordered the CIA's Inspector General, Frederick Hitz, to investigate how the Agency had handled the Ames case, and Richard Haver, director of the intelligence community's management staff, to do a detailed damage assessment of his spying, while the House and Senate Intelligence launched their own inquiries into his spying. Haver and DDCI Admiral William Studeman had been molehunters in the Navy during Secretary John Lehman's plan to take advantage of Palme's assassination by triggering a non-nuclear conclusion to the Cold War, so they were completely versed in what the dangers had been in trying it. (For more details, see Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, Blind Man's Bluff, p. 299ff.)
"It's like turning over rocks," Haver said cryptically when he announced its report. "Each rock has more and more crap under it." (Quoted from James Adams, Sellout, p. 248.) Woolsey also asked an outside panel of experts, headed by former Senate Intelligence Committee staffer Jeffery H. Smith, to give a preliminary assessment of what it thought he had betrayed, and it issued a 32-page report in July, corroborating the counterintelligence lapses that allowed Ames to do his spying, and he was revealing
during his three, weekly debriefings at the Alexandria Dentention Center. Woolsey immediately put its obvious recommendations about security into effect. For good measure, Ames had endured his grilling by Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Dennis DeConcini on August 5, 1994 without disclosing anything too embarrassing about himself or the Agency
Instead of the crisis being over, though, it resumed with renewed destructiveness, thanks to the release of information about operations, and interviews with the principal officials concerned, especially Ames, that the Bureau, Agency, and Justice Department permitted with investigators writing on the subject. Details surrounding Operation Tree were discussed in ways which pointed to something big happening at the end of February 1986. Many of the officials responsible discussed what was going on, and the cover ups in ways which were highly embarrassing to various agencies, especially the CIA. It was as if the intelligence community was incapable of ever learning how to conduct itself in a secure fashion.
The books, starting with Adams's and ending with Earley's, were just a rising tide of revelations about operations by loose-lipped officials which never should have seen the light of day. The offending CIA officials were DDOs Clair George, Richard Stolz, and Hugh 'Ted' Price; ADDO Thomas Tweeten; Soviet Division chiefs Burton Gerber, Milton Bearden and David Forden; Rome COS Alan Wolfe and DCOS Jack Gower; CIC chief Gardner 'Gus' Hathaway; and many others. Wise, in "Author's Note" at the back of his book, mentioned that he had conducted more than 450 interveiws with almost 200 persons in his research, a good number of whom were former CIA officers, but only a few, including Bearden, were willing to be identified. "The list of those who prefer to remain anonymous is much longer." (p. 337)
These matters got even worse when Earley researched his book. During eleven sessions in July, Earley was allowed to interview Ames without the government's knowledge or approval for three to four hours at a time, and with a tape recorder. "During our nightly session," Earley explained, "Ames answered every question that I asked. No subjects were off limits, including questions about classified information." (p. 6) Then Ames supplied Earley with a letter of introduction, dated 22 September 1994, to anyone he might want to interview, calling upon officials in Russia who worked with him to provide Earley with any help they could. (See copy opposite the beginning of the Prologue.)
And Earley used it for all it was worth, though the Russians declined to tell him their side of the story, as a most knowledgeable KGB officer explained: "There are things that have never come out about this case. There are still secrets that only a few know." (Quoted from p. 14.) Earley offered no guesses about what they might have been, leaving the questions to readers to resolve.
Still, there were enough secrets revealed to give the public a better idea about what had been planned, and what had gone wrong. Wise, for example, made a big thing about the significance of Motorin's telephone calls to the States, and their stopping with such deadly consequences even to his handlers James Stassinos and Mike Morton: "But around February, the last telephone contact took place, and soon after, Motorin was arrested in Moscow on his way to or from a meeting with a CIA officer." (p. 257) Wise also indicated that Yuzhin was arrested by the KGB before Chebrikov made his announcement about all the double agent operations having been closed down. (p. 261)
Earley wrote that Polyakov was arrested a year later than first claimed, July 1985, indicating that the Soviets were punishing all suspected double agents for the risks the USSR was subjected to, as a matter of policy. Operation ABSORB was known to have been compromised in February 1986 since the electronic equipment stopped functioning, though the Agency still thought that the 'dangle', EASTBOUND, was a legitimate source for several more years. (p. 197ff.) Then Earley spilled the beans about the rigmarole that 'Mr. X' put the Agency's Redmond through (pp. 198ff., esp. p. 287) - what was particularly embarrassing for Woolsey because of his promotion of him for his mole work.
Little wonder that Woolsey hit the overhead when he learned of what was going on behind his back. Using the issuance of Inspector General Hitz's report on the Ames case in September as his club, Woolsey hit every possible member of the Operations Directorate he could lay his hands on with a letter of reprimand for talking out of turn. The list was headed by the current DO Ted Price who was only interested in finding "out just how much damage he (Ames) had done." (Mark Riebling, Wedge, p. 442) The inclusion of George, Gerber, and Stolz in the list was a telltale sign that it was the DO which was responsible for Ames becoming a Soviet spy, and for the need of covering it up.
In fact, the only person to receive a reprimand who was not in the DO was Hathaway, and he was censured for his cocksure assurances about the Agency being mole free to the Senate Intelligence Committee just when Operation Tree was commencing - another tidbit that Wise picked up from talkative associates of Ames: "There has never been an agent of the Soviets in the center of the CIA itself." (Quoted from p. 195) Thereafter, Hathaway spent much of his time, trying to make sure it stayed that way.
DDO Price and ADDO Tweeten, the only aforementioned officials who were still working for the Agency,
were reprimanded rather than retired so that they would be forced to clean up what remained of the fiasco - especially the unsolved murder of Palme suspect Viktor Gunnarsson. Tweeten had served as CIA liaison with Operation Tree's action officer, the NSC's infamous Ollie North. Price had been Hathaway's deputy at CIC until the cover up of the scandal had been completed, moving over to the Operations Division as ADDO in 1991.
For not having laid a glove on any of the revelant DCIs, or members of the Office of Security for their role in the scandal - as Hitz had suggested, but not being at liberty to explain why - Woolsey created such a firestorm of opposition to his continuing tenure as DCI that his future rather than the Agency's became the topic of the day. Once the furore over the reprimands had subsided, and the Christmas holidays were in progress, Woolsey suddenly announced his resignation in the hope that it would finally draw a line under the decade-old scandal.