The woman who tracked down a CIA mole
- 8 January 2014
- From the section Magazine
Sandra Grimes knew that one of her colleagues was a traitor - one of the biggest in US history, as it turned out. She helped put him in prison for the rest of his life. Her story is now told in a TV miniseries.
Aldrich Ames liked to explain things. Once he told Sandra Grimes how to catch a mole.
"He gave this 'counterintelligence 101' talk," she says. "Was I mad? Yes. But I didn't want to show anything."
She and her colleague, Jeanne Vertefeuille, were trying to find out why the agency was losing its Soviet assets, individuals who had agreed to betray their own country and work for the CIA.
At the time Ames was being watched.
"There was already deep suspicion," says Henry Crumpton, a former CIA operative. "That was part of Sandy's job - not to spook him. She was masterful."
The story of how she and Vertefeuille helped to catch Ames is explored in a mini-series, The Assets, that began on the US network ABC last Thursday.
The show is based on a 2012 book, Circle of Treason, by Grimes and Vertefeuille. The main characters in the mini-series are played by British actors - Paul Rhys (Ames), Jodie Whittaker (Grimes) and Harriet Walter (Vertefeuille).
Grimes, 68, talks about the CIA while sitting in a La-Z-Boy-style chair in front of an electric fireplace at her house in northern Virginia. Costco Connection, a magazine published by a discount retailer, is lying on a shelf.
The room smells of apricot, wafting from a fragrance bottle, and is a far cry from the world of subterfuge and espionage, at least the kind portrayed in fiction. The reality is different.
Grimes and those who work for the CIA know things that can start wars and lead to people's deaths. Yet the individuals themselves - or most of them - lead ordinary lives. That comes across in The Assets.
A former case officer, Joe Weisberg, creator and executive producer of The Americans on FX network, says: "The characters were very recognisable from the CIA that I worked at. They seemed like real bureaucrats."
CIA spokesman Christopher White says they avoid discussions about these kinds of programmes. "We don't endorse - one way or the other," he says.
Yet he is enthusiastic about Grimes herself - and the others who investigated Ames. "Today, roughly 20 years after the arrest, the Agency and the American people remain forever in their debt," says White.
Like other bureaucrats, Grimes and Ames carpooled. They were working in the Soviet/East European operations division in the 1970s. He drove a Volvo - the window on the passenger side was stiff, she recalls, and hard to roll up.
"He couldn't care less about how he looked," she says. "He'd come running out of the house with his shirt not tucked in."
He was a bureaucrat but saw himself as an intellectual, someone who read books about Russian history. "He loved the 'what if' questions," she says.
Later he carried out a shocking crime, handing over the names of Soviet assets to the KGB.
Randall Woods, the author of a biography of former CIA director William Colby, says of Ames: "His betrayal was indefensible. He wasn't selling manuals or antiballistic missiles. He was betraying individuals."
At least eight were executed. In exchange Ames received millions in cash.
Ames was allowed to remain at the agency for nearly a decade after he initially betrayed the informants. CIA officers say they were able to protect their Soviet assets after that early period - when the informants were first exposed - and keep them safe.
CIA officers are touchy about the investigation - and defend their approach. They say they had to be rigorous in their efforts and needed time in order to pursue leads. Still the idea that Ames remained at the agency - and was close to those who kept the nation's secrets - is unnerving.
Ames' first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife, Maria del Rosario Casas Ames, is from Bogota, Colombia.
"Rosario loves to spend money," says Grimes. "Stores like Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom. Rick can't keep up with it."
Even he had a hard time explaining what happened.
"It was as if I were in almost a state of shock," he said, according to a 1994 congressional report. "The realisation of what I had done. But certainly underlying it was the conviction that there was as much money as I could ever use - if I chose to do that."
The Soviets who agreed to spy on their own nation were aware of the risks. Ames believed that since they had consented to play such a high-stakes game, they could not be overly surprised if things ended badly.
Grimes says: "He rationalised it. It was, well, they knew when they signed up. This is it, babe.'"
She throws up her hands. "The arrogance starts to show," she says. "It's, 'I'm smarter than you are.'" She says the words in a sing-song voice, imitating her former colleague, with a bright, superior look on her face.
The investigation took years. "It was very important that we didn't get it wrong," she says.
She and her colleagues pored over Ames' calendar and studied his bank statements. They worked together, sitting in cubicles with "huge, high" dividers, and passed information over the walls.
They noticed Ames had been having lunch with an arms-control expert from the Soviet embassy. Afterwards Ames would go to the bank and deposit money.
She went to see one of her higher-ups at the agency: "I closed the door and said, 'it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what is going on here. Rick is a goddamned Soviet spy.'"
Ames was arrested on 21 February 1994. "He was surprised," she says. "He thought he got away with it."
Still he did get away with it - for nine years. Grimes was methodical, yet overall the approach was flawed. "She did hard, painstaking work," says Tim Weiner, author of Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. "But the modality of CIA counterintelligence was to spin out theories."
Frederick Hitz, who later served as the agency's inspector general, wrote a report. "We asked, 'What's the story here? How did it happen?'" he says. "Our conclusion was that we did not feel the agency devoted sufficient resources to finding out why."
The report remains classified.
The story of Ames shows the damage one man can do when given access to classified information and decides to use it to his own advantage. It also exposes the difficulty of ferreting out a traitor within an organisation as insular as the CIA.
Ames was sentenced to life in prison. The last time Grimes saw him was in a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.
"I heard this noise," she says. "It was a clank."
Wearing leg irons, he appeared before the judge. "He pontificated and said, 'blah, blah blah,'" she says.
"The magistrate said, 'Mr Ames, yours is a crime against every citizen.' He took his gavel - boom. 'Bail denied.' Whoa!"
She leans back and looks surprised.
Ames was escorted out of the room. "He was not a beaten man," she says. "He was still in charge. That's what he gave off. He's comfortable with himself, oddly enough."