CIA agent Aldrich Ames started working for the Soviet Union in 1985, eventually exposing the names of every Soviet intelligence or military official working for the United States.
Lots of people want more money. But what lengths would you to go to get it? Would you sell your country’s secrets? Or information that could lead to people’s deaths? For Aldrich Ames, the answer was yes.
A CIA agent who became a Soviet spy, Ames’ betrayal proved devastating for American assets in the U.S.S.R. Between 1985 and his arrest in 1994, Ames revealed the names of every intelligence agent he knew of, leading to the deaths of at least 10 people.
Unlike other double agents throughout history, Ames was not motivated by politics or philosophy but by the millions of dollars offered by his Soviet handlers. “Money was the motivation,” he later affirmed.
This is the story of Aldrich Ames, the CIA double agent who compromised more CIA assets than almost any other in American history.
The Early Years Of A Subpar Spy
Born on May 26, 1941, Aldrich Hazen “Rick” Ames grew up with the CIA all around him. His father worked as a CIA analyst, and Ames’ peers at school often also had parents working with the CIA. Shortly after graduating high school, Ames started his own CIA career as a summer intern.
According to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Ames continued to work for the CIA while completing his bachelor’s degree at George Washington University. In 1962, he started working for the CIA full-time, and by 1969, Ames was sent abroad to work undercover in Ankara, Turkey.
All the while, he continuously received subpar evaluations from his superiors. One told The New York Times that Ames “exuded this feeling of superiority to everyone else” though he was, in the supervisor’s opinion, “on a rubber rung of a career ladder.” The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence additionally found that Ames’ personnel file was full of red flags, including run-ins with law enforcement, alcoholism, inattention to detail, and procrastination. Ames once even left a case of classified documents on the New York subway.
Along the way, Ames’ personal life suffered as well. His wife divorced him on grounds of “mental cruelty,” and Ames soon found himself with thousands of dollars in debt. While living with his girlfriend, Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy, whom Ames had met while on assignment in Mexico City, he began to agonize about the state of his finances.
“I felt a great deal of financial pressure, which, in retrospect, I was clearly overreacting to,” Ames later explained, according to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “I had incurred a certain amount of personal debt in terms of buying furniture for an apartment and my divorce settlement had left me with no property essentially… Rosario was living with me at the time… I was contemplating the future. I had no house, and we had strong plans to have a family, and so I was thinking in the longer term.”
Then, Aldrich Ames seemed to find a solution to his financial woes. In 1985, he started selling CIA secrets to the Soviet Union.
How Aldrich Ames Started Working With The U.S.S.R.
As the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reports, Aldrich Ames approached Soviet officials in April 1985 with an offer: classified information in exchange for money. The Soviets agreed, and paid Ames $50,000.
“I’m still puzzled as to what took me to the next steps,” Ames later admitted. “The main factor, on balance I think, was a realization after I had received the $50,000, was a sense of the enormity of what I had done… The fear that I had crossed a line that I had not clearly considered before. That I crossed a line I could never step back.”
Having crossed that line, Ames plunged further into his life as a double agent. As The New York Times reports, he readily provided the names of every Soviet intelligence official and military officer working for the U.S., as well as information he had about CIA operations against the U.S.S.R.
During one meeting with the Soviets, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that Ames provided the “largest amount of sensitive documents and critical information, that we know anyway, that have ever been passed to the KGB in one particular meeting.” He simply carried plastic bags stuffed with documents out of the CIA and gave them to the KGB.
No matter where he went, Ames tended to his Soviet connections. From Bogota, Colombia, to Rome, Italy, Ames continued to pass on state secrets. And he was handsomely rewarded for his efforts. By 1989, the Federal Bureau of Investigations reports that Ames had received $1.88 million.
But Aldrich Ames’ work hadn’t gone unnoticed. CIA officials had begun to detect a disturbing trend, as many of their assets were being compromised, arrested, and killed. Before long, they began to suspect that someone was trading information to the Soviets from within the CIA itself.
The Team That Found The CIA’s Mole
At CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a team of investigators led by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille spent years working to determine the identity of the mole leaking state secrets to the Soviets.
In their book Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames And The Men He Betrayed, Grimes and Vertefeuille wrote that Aldrich initially struck them as an unlikely candidate. He seemed like an “absent-minded professor” who was frequently disheveled, unkempt, and late.
But as Grimes noted in a 2013 video from the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., Aldrich Ames seemed like a different person when he returned from to Washington D.C. from Rome in 1989. “I saw a totally different Rick Ames,” she said. “I saw someone who was one of the most confident people I’d ever seen in my life and Rick was never confident.”
Ames had fixed his teeth, bought a Jaguar, and started wearing $600 Italian loafers. The New York Times also reports that Ames and his wife had paid $540,000 — in cash — for a new split-level house in Arlington. Though these purchases raised some eyebrows, Ames implied that he got his money from his wife’s rich Colombian family.
Suspicious of Ames’ sudden transformation, Grimes and Vertefeuille made a list of 198 people who had access to the information that had been leaked. They then narrowed the list down to three. And in 1992, Grimes finally found the smoking gun that led her to Aldrich Ames.
After studying a timeline of Ames’ bank deposits, she noticed that after each lunch Ames had with one Soviet official, he deposited a large sum of cash. In all, Ames had $1.3 million in deposits from unexplained sources. As Grimes told one colleague: “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell what is going on here. Rick is a goddamn Russian spy.”
Aldrich Ames Comes Clean
The CIA and FBI surveilled Aldrich Ames, put a tracker on his car, tapped his phone, and dug through his garbage. Before long, they had enough evidence to arrest both Ames and his wife on Feb. 21, 1994. According to Betrayal: The Story Of Aldrich Ames, An American Spy by Tim Weiner David Johnston, and Neil Lewis, Ames initially denied being a double agent, insisting: “You’re making a big mistake! You must have the wrong man!”
But Ames soon changed his tune. He eventually came clean and admitted to all of his espionage. It’s not fully clear how much Rosario Ames knew about or participated in his crimes, but she signed the couple’s tax returns and had at least one suspicious phone call with Ames.
Aldrich Ames plead guilty to espionage and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He is in federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, to this day. As part of Ames’ plea deal, Rosario Ames pleaded guilty to tax evasion and conspiracy to commit espionage and served five years in prison. After her release, she moved back to Colombia.
For almost a decade, Aldrich Ames had steadily fed information to the Soviet Union, information which compromised American assets in the U.S.S.R. and led to the executions of at least 10 people. Why did he do it? Aldrich admits that his motives were purely financial — he wanted a payout.
As the then-Director of Central Intelligence, R. James Woolsey, grimly told The New York Times: “[The executed assets] died because this warped, murdering traitor wanted a bigger house and a Jaguar.”
After reading about Aldrich Ames, discover the story of Robert Hanssen, the American spy whose betrayal was so great that it overshadowed Ames’. Or, look through this list of some of history’s most famous spies.