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Spy vs. Spy- How Government Built Its Case Against Ames

By Gaylord Shaw

On a balmy evening last September, all the world seemed to know that the superpower Cold War was over. Four years earlier, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and just a week earlier the United States and Russia had agreed to jointly design and build an international space station.

But on the leafy residential streets two miles northwest of the White House on the evening of Sept. 9, the game of spies was continuing. FBI agents with video cameras were recording every move as a man and a woman drove slowly through the neighborhood, peering intently out the windows of their Jaguar.

The man was Aldrich "Rick" Ames, 52, a career midlevel analyst of the CIA. The woman was his Colombian-born wife, Maria del Rosario Casas Ames, 42, known as Rosario. Both were arrested Monday and now are in jail, accused of selling state secrets first to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, then to Russia in the 1990s after the Soviet empire collapsed. If convicted, they face life in prison.

In the mid 80s, when his spying allegedly began, Ames headed the CIA's Soviet branch of counterintelligence - the effort to uncover enemy spies and recruit double agents. The affidavit identified one such agent as allegedly betrayed by Ames and executed by Moscow, but sources said he may have compromised as many as six Soviets who were working for the CIA.

The Ames case jolted the Clinton administration and its relations with the Russian government headed by Boris N. Yeltsin, and underscored a fact of life repeated Wednesday by a former U.S. intelligence official: "There may be no more Cold War, but there still is a need for information, lots of information. So there are spies, lots of spies."

And, as government documents and interviews show in sometimes tantalizing detail, sophisticated surveillance, eavesdropping, photographic and other means are used in the game of spy vs. spy.

On Sept. 9, according to government documents disclosing the video surveillance, the Ameses attended a parents' night program at their 4-year-old son's school in suburban Virginia, then crossed the Potomac River and drove to Garfield Street and Garfield Terrace in a residential neighborhood of northwest Washington.

"Ames and his wife were attempting to verify through a signal site that a dead drop he had filled that day was unloaded" by Russian agents, according to an affidavit filed in federal court by the FBI's Leslie G. Wiser Jr. In spy talk, a "dead drop" is a location - such as a pipe or log - where documents, money, film or computer diskettes can be deposited by one agent and picked up by another, without face-to-face contact.

The richly detailed39-page affidavit filed in federal court Tuesday after the arrests gives hints of how the government built its case.

There were listening devices planted in the home they had purchased in 1989 as well as taps on their telephones and computer.

Federal agents rummaged repeatedly through their garbage, finding torn-up notes they pieced together and typewriter ribbons they used to reconstruct other messages.

The FBI electronically monitored the Ameses' bank accounts and reconstructed the flow of more than $1.5 million into those accounts.

Ames' government salary never exceeded $70,000 a year, but this income was far outpaced by the family's spending. Besides the half-million-dollar house in a fashionable neighborhood, the documents say, the Ameses spent $100,000 on home improvements, bought the new Jaguar with a $25,000 cash down payment, invested $160,000 in stocks and securities, purchased two condominiums and a farm in Rosario Ames' native Colombia, and spent more than $450,000 in credit card purchases during an eight-year period.

Documents released after the arrests suggest that as far back as the mid-1980s the FBI - which kept an intensive watch on Soviet personnel in this country - became aware of Ames' meetings with Soviet agents, but that the CIA may have been unaware of the contacts because Ames did not regularly report them as required.