BOOK REVIEW: ‘Circle of Treason’

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By Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille
Naval Institute Press, $29.95, 228 pages

In the summer of 1992, CIA counterintelligence analyst Sandra “Sandy” Grimes burst into the office of her boss, Paul Redmond, and exclaimed, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell what is going on here … Rick [Ames] is a Russian spy!”

Thus came the major break in a mystery that had bedeviled the CIA for years: Why were so many of its agents in the USSR being compromised to the KGB and executed? The arrests cut out the heart of the agency’s spy efforts in the USSR.

Mrs. Grimes was part of a counterintelligence team working on the problem. Aldrich “Rick” Ames, an agency officer since 1967, chiefly on Soviet matters, was one of several individuals under suspicion, chiefly because of the “extremely large sums of money” he was spending, both on a new home, a sports car and high-living with a spendthrift wife. (Ames spoke vaguely of his wife’s “inheritance,” a claim that could not be verified because wills were not open to outsiders in her native Colombia.)

Although he held some important assignments in the Clandestine Service branches dealing with the USSR, Ames was considered a so-so officer. He was unkempt in his personal appearance, he drank a bit more than was considered the norm, and his performance in various postings was uneven. Superiors chided him often about tardiness with his reports; if a particular assignment did not interest him, he tended to give it short shrift.

In her investigation, Mrs. Grimes laid out a chronology of the betrayals and Ames‘ activities, while a colleague, Dan Payne, pored over Ames‘ bank records and other financial data. Once she correlated the financial data with her chronology, she had what she would later call “an epiphany.”

CIA tradecraft encouraged officers who worked on Soviet affairs — such as Ames — to make “sanctioned contacts” with people at the Soviet Embassy, with the hope they might cultivate them to the point where they would reveal important information. Such contacts supposedly were reported in advance to the FBI to explain why a CIA officer was making such contacts.

Ames had dutifully reported some — but by no means all — of the lunches and other meetings he had with Sergey Dmitriyevich Chuvakhin, ostensibly an arms-control specialist. Sandy Grimes immediately spotted the correlations that sent her racing into Redmond’s office:

May 17, 1985: Ames lunches with Chuvakhin.

May 18, 1985: Ames deposits $9,000.

July 2, 1985: Ames lunches with Chuvakhin.

July 5, 1985: Ames deposits $5,000.

July 31, 1985: Ames lunches with Chuvakhin.

July 31, 1985: Ames deposits $8,500.

Mr. Payne’s financial analysis eventually would document that from 1985 to 1991, Ames had income of $1,326,310 from unidentified sources. The case was by no means over, and just how the CIA and the FBI worked together to put Ames behind bars for life makes for the most gripping insider account of a counterintelligence operation that you are ever apt to read. Mrs. Grimes, a 26-year CIA veteran, co-authored the book with her friend Jeanne Vertefeuille, who joined the CIA as a GS-4 typist in 1954 and worked her way through the Clandestine Service to become a station chief. She “retired” in 1992, but continued as a contract officer until her death on Dec. 29 ended a 58-year career.

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