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Don't expect the CIA to pay a price for being inept

Aldrich Ames: two last names, no brains about Russia. He's your quintessential CIA operative. Now they say he's also a spy.

Anyone who flipped over to the Russians in 1985, when they were still the Soviet Union and headed for history, seems a prime candidate for the newly fashionable victimhood that is rampant in our society. The Menendez brothers, who killed their parents and told the court they were protesting sexual abuse, both got hung juries. The people who savagely beat Los Angeles truck driver Reginald Denny _ on video _ claimed the riot made them do it and got convictions on lesser charges.

Similarly, Ames could claim he was victimized by the stupendously erroneous reports of the CIA on Moscow's economy. The CIA got it wrong for almost 50 years. Ames could claim he was misled by bad dope, just as the country was, and spent itself silly trying to catch up with the paupers.

But it doesn't seem to have happened that way. Ames followed in the footsteps of his father, who served at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., not with distinction but for a long time. Aldrich, called "Rick," never seems to have entertained any other career. His first wife was a CIA colleague. His second wife, a Colombian, he met and recruited in Mexico. She was a highly cultured cultural affairs officer who became a CIA informant. They have a 6-year-old son, who is the only figure in the debacle who deserves sympathy _ apart from the shadowy Soviet double agents supposedly executed in Moscow as a result of Ames' disclosures.

Reports about Ames are as ambiguous as those infamous "psychological profiles" the agency puts out about foreign leaders whom they hope to discredit, such as Haiti's Jean-Bertrand Aristide. On the one hand, Ames sounds dweebish, passive, hapless; a hard-drinking loser. On the other, he is described as a witty, dashing fellow, who played Gaylord Ravenal, the lead in the McLean High School production of Showboat.

Whichever he was, Ames did well enough in the CIA to be given the job of chief of the Soviet counterintelligence branch. Where differing views converge is on money as a paramount consideration with the alleged mole.

Nothing needs to be said about the fact that it took the spooks some nine years to track down the Ameses. It helps explain how they missed so much else.

The CIA's problem is not hard to define. Its operatives are not observant. Ames and his wife did everything they could to arouse suspicion, living it up in a most provocative manner. What GS-14, on a salary of $69,000-plus, pays half a million in cash for a house in Arlington, Va., and almost another hundred grand for remodeling, buys a bright red Jaguar and runs up Trumplike charges on his credit card? But Ames passed two lie-detector tests.

The Russians allegedly spent $1.3-million on the Ameses. That's a mystery, too. As they slowly slid into bankruptcy and chaos, what could they possibly learn about us that they could not have found out for nothing?

Sorry as the story is, the reaction on the part of certain Republicans is as bad. Anxious to pin the flaming scandal on President Clinton, they fell to suggesting it was his fault for sending aid to Russia, proposing that Moscow should be punished for having a mole by having its aid cut back.

The fiction that the Russians keep on spying while we do not was shot down by one of the more sensible Republicans, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who when asked on Meet the Press if we spy on Russia said, "Of course."

As Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, said on the Senate floor the other day, members have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Instead of cutting back on funds to make Russia a capitalist democracy, we should be cutting back on the astronomical budget of the CIA, which Clinton unaccountably increased by almost a billion dollars last year. They'll doubtless ask for a raise so they can have more resources to track down the Ameses of tomorrow.

Congress should be hanging its head instead of shooting off its mouth about the Russians. It should be asking why we have squandered billions on an agency that is not only incompetent, but empowered to cover its incompetence. We don't even know how much they get. Sen. Daniel Moynihan, D-N.Y., has introduced a bill to eliminate the agency and fold its functions into the State Department.

Congress won't buy it. For the excesses, follies and failures of an agency founded specifically to confound a monster that bit the dust with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Congress is the great enabler.

Universal Press Syndicate