1. Archive

Carelessness to new extremes

Published Oct. 6, 2005

From 1954 to 1974, CIA officer James Angleton drove fellow agents to distraction with his obsessive search of documents that would prove his deeply held conviction there was a mole burrowed deep inside the intelligence agency. Angleton never found what he was looking for, and his paranoia got him dismissed in 1975. Better the agency had kept him looking.

Carleton Ames worked briefly for Angleton during those years. It's the height of irony that Ames' son, Aldrich, now stands accused of becoming the mole Angleton never found. Details of the CIA's ineptitude in exposing Aldrich Ames would be comical if they weren't so appalling that they border on criminal. The agency's bungling might have meant the life-and-death difference for eight Russians and East Europeans executed as agents of the CIA.

Item: In the mid-80s, the CIA was mystified by the failure of attempts to infiltrate the Soviet KGB. Betrayal was suspected, but suspects didn't include Aldrich Ames. Then two Russian intelligence officers in Washington, D.C., who had been recruited as double agents by the FBI, were called home to Moscow, tried and executed. Still, Ames was not a suspect.

Item: In 1989, an official tipped the CIA that Ames was living far beyond the means of a $69,000-a-year division chief, like paying $540,000 for a new home. Incredibly, it wasn't until two years later that anybody asked Ames to explain. He said his wife inherited money. It was another year before anybody checked that claim. Between 1989 and 1992, Ames and his wife also deposited $278,000 into personal banking accounts and rang up nearly half a million dollars in credit card charges.

Item: In 1992, Ames told his superiors he was going to Columbia to visit his mother-in-law. Then he openly flew to Venezuela instead and met with a Russian contact, according to an FBI surveillance report. At this point, flags should have popped up all over the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters, but it wasn't until June of last year that Ames' office at the agency was searched.

Item: In the seven years the CIA had Ames more or less under scrutiny, eight of the 10 operatives he is accused of betraying were executed.

One member of Congress described the CIA's hunt for a mole as "unfocused." Quite an understatement. Words like incompetent, blind and dumb come more readily to mind.