Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Furor Over Ames: Why Now?

The recent furor over Aldrich Ames, the CIA official accused of spying for the Soviet Union and then for Russia, should draw attention to some hard facts about the relationship between Russia and the West.

Amidst all the hoopla and high-flown rhetoric of the last few years about post-Cold war peace and cooperation, after the warm glow of the Moscow summit in January, the unexciting truth emerges: Russia and the United States are very different countries with separate, sometimes conflicting, internal and external interests.

America's righteous indignation over the affair is more than a bit disingenuous. No top U.S. official could seriously be shocked, or even mildly surprised, that Russia is still spying on the United States.

Espionage and counter-espionage have been part of the international order for as long as there have been states. An old cartoon, portraying a man with cloak and dagger being observed by a rather blatantly lascivious woman, was circulated throughout the American intelligence community years ago. The caption read: "Espionage -- the world's second oldest profession, with even fewer morals than the first."

The question is not, as some U.S. officials have been trying to claim, whether or not Boris Yeltsin was involved, or whether America should support a country that has abused its trust. The most interesting aspect of the case is -- why now? Ames has been under suspicion for some time. Why choose this particular moment to expose him?

There are several possible explanations, the most obvious being that Ames may have caught wind of the investigation against him and been preparing to run.

Another is that the United States is irritated with Russia for the way it handled the Bosnia crisis and wanted to send the world a message along the lines: The Russians are taking all the credit for Bosnia, but look what they were doing behind our back.

Still another version points to U.S. internal politics: Bill Clinton is under attack from conservative Republicans for being too soft on Russia, a charge that was heard at great volume during Strobe Talbott's confirmation hearings as deputy secretary of state. The spy case has given Clinton an opportunity to show that he can be tough.

Whatever precipitated the crisis, it is important to put the matter in perspective. Top officials in Russia and the United States are well aware that the case will not damage relations between the two countries in any significant way, and have said so publicly.

This is not a case of Russian treachery and American naivete. It is just one more move in the international diplomatic game. A little less drama and a lot more realism could cool the situation down significantly.