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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Spy Plot Thickens

It was Soviet fears of a U.S. first strike in the early 1980s that apparently led to their recruitment of Aldrich Hazen Ames, a 30-year veteran of the CIA's clandestine services, nearly a decade ago. The arrest of Ames and his Columbian-born wife, Maria del Rosario Casas, in February, revealed a long hemorrhage of secrets -- the worst by far, if allegations are true, in the agency's 45-year history.

The aggressive buildup of U.S. nuclear arms early in former President Reagan's first term, combined with Reagan's characterization of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," evidently convinced the KGB that "the threat of outbreak of a nuclear war has reached dangerous proportions." The result was a blizzard of top-secret memos from Moscow to agents in the field to gather information on U.S. military preparations and to recruit well-placed spies.

Instructions to field officers in November 1983 from Vladimir Kryuchkov, who was later KGB chief from 1988 until the failed hardline coup attempt of 1991, ended the Soviet intelligence agency's long-fabled parsimony in rewarding agents. He urged "bolder use of material incentives." The new policy, described in a collection of documents published by the KGB defector Oleg Gordievsky and his British co-author, helps explain the unprecedented sums allegedly paid to Ames beginning in May, 1985 -- more than $2.5 million, according to FBI and CIA investigators.

By way of contrast, the KGB paid only $3,000 for the super-secret technical manual describing the KH-11 spy satellite purchased from William Kampiles, a disgruntled former CIA officer, in the 1970s. The KH-11 was a mainstay of the CIA's system of reconnaissance satellites used to track Soviet missile deployments and other military preparations. The KGB's possession of the manual for more than a year before the CIA even discovered it was missing told the Soviets just what the Americans could see from space -- and, therefore, how to hide whatever they wanted to keep secret.

Loss of the satellite manual, among other things, convinced some U.S. intelligence analysts that the Soviets had embarked on a major, long-term effort to deceive the United States about the capabilities, and especially the accuracy, of its missile force.

This in turn helped prompt Reagan and his national security advisers to embark on the strategic buildup that so alarmed the KGB in the early 1980s, and led to the agent recruiting frenzy that eventually landed Ames.

What made Ames worth $2.5 million, when the KH-11 manual commanded only $3,000? The answer again comes from one of the documents spirited off by the KGB defector Gordievsky. "It must always be remembered," said a report of a January, 1984 meeting of leading KGB officials in Moscow, "that the chief means of ensuring that the security of intelligence operations is protected is, and has always been, agent penetration of the other side's intelligence and counterintelligence agencies."

Ames' most sensitive post was chief of the counterintelligence branch of the Central Intelligence Agency's Soviet-East European division, from 1983 through 1985. What the Soviets got from Ames was a list of names -- at least 10, according to an FBI affidavit -- of Soviet agents working for the CIA between 1985 and 1990. Five had been assigned to the Soviet embassy or consular offices in the United States where they had been recruited by the FBI.

At the heart of the Ames case are the outlines of a compelling human drama. Ames' father, a former history professor and an alcoholic, also worked for the CIA. Carleton Ames, a one-time case officer in Burma, worked as a historian of Soviet intelligence for the CIA's central counterintelligence staff run by James Angleton. Angleton was a legend for keeping Soviet penetrations out of the agency during his watch as Central Intelligence chief (1954-74), or for his crazy suspicions that the Soviets were manipulating Western intelligence operations worldwide with the help of a mole (never found) in the CIA.

Aldrich Ames is certainly not the mole Angleton sought. It is also unlikely (but not impossible) that Carleton Ames' brief stint on the CI staff would have given him access to the information Angleton was sure was leaking to the KGB.

Counterintelligence analysts must now painstakingly parse old cases to determine if things really happened the way we once thought they did. One further case may suggest the dimensions of this task. In the summer of 1985, the KGB officer Vitaly Yurchenko defected to the United States. Yurchenko provided the names of two KGB agents in the United States: Ronald Pelton, working for the code breakers at the National Security Agency, and Edward Lee Howard, a former CIA officer who soon bolted for the Soviet Union.

But then Yurchenko walked out of a Georgetown restaurant where he was dining with a CIA handler and redefected to the Soviet embassy. Yurchenko said he'd been drugged and kidnapped, and soon returned to Moscow with a Russian embassy officer, Valery Martynov. The CIA said it had been a case of two genuine defections and Yurchenko's "pure gold," as it was called at the time, was genuine. Now we learn that: (a) Martynov was a spy for the Americans, recruited by the FBI, and that he was never seen again; and (b) one of Yurchenko's debriefers at CIA headquarters was the CI branch chief, Ames.

Outsiders sometimes wonder, understandably, if the circles within circles of counterintelligence are worth the time and trouble of grown men. The answer is that an intelligence service is more danger than help if it is not secure; and that the security of an intelligence service can be established only by the close embrace of an opposing service -- ideally by placing one of your men at the heart of the enemy effort to do the same to yourself.

Thomas Powers is the author of "The Man Who kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA." He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.