Security & Intelligence


Treason. Such an ugly word. Aldrich Ames prefers “spying.” Such rationalizations are a part of what made Ames one of the most cold-blooded traitors in U.S. history. He also remains the most damaging mole (to our knowledge) to betray the CIA.

Spying was in Ames’ blood. His father was a spy, and he spent summers working for the agency (nothing devious of course; he was only 16 and simply helped prepare resources, such as fake money, for training exercises.) With the help of his father, he was later hired by the agency and began training to become a case officer in the Directorate of Operations, the CIA’s covert branch. His early career proved to be lackluster. He seemed to have difficulty recruiting spies.

He eventually cought a few breaks managing already-turned “assets” (as spies are referred to) and began to make some progress. He was, however, consistently passed over for promotions, due to his lack of recruiting abilities. His personal life was a mess and his marriage was falling apart. He began drinking heavily. In order to prove his worth, he took a tour in Mexico City where he once again failed to recruit a single spy. Distraught, his failure in Mexico City only led to more drinking and disillusionment. His agency friends were worried about him, and set him up with Maria del Rosario, a cultural attach� for the Colombian Embassy in Mexico. Ames promptly fell in love.

Thanks to an agency friend who only knew of Ames’ success with managing assets, Ames was finally promoted, and moved back to Washington. He was named counterintelligence branch chief in Soviet operations, a job that would give him access to nearly all of the agency’s Soviet cases. Eventually, Rosario came to join him, and he divorced his first wife and remarried.

At the time, the CIA was enjoying an extensive network of intelligence assets, penetrating every aspect of the Soviet system. The range and degree of programs was wider than it had ever been, and Ames had access to all of it. Meanwhile, Rosario was running up huge bills that Ames simply couldn’t afford to pay. She talked with her mother on the telephone every day, running up enormous long-distance phone bills. The phone bills along with other gratuitous spending and the cost of his divorce put Ames in deep debt.

When and how Ames exactly began his espionage for the Soviet Union is still debated. Ames claims that he had come up with the “perfect scam.” In exchange for $50,000 (roughly the amount of debt he had run up), he would give the Soviets the names of three Russians spying for the CIA. However, the three agents he claims he gave up were actually “double agents” who still worked for the KGB. This was a rather elegant proposal: he was able to shield the U.S. and the CIA from harm because he was only giving the KGB the names of its own agents.

The FBI and CIA disagree, however. They claim Ames gave up the CIA agents who were most likely to discover Ames’ betrayal.

Regardless of how malicious he was when he started, this act represented the first step down a slippery slope, indeed. Two days after Ames had received his first payment from the Soviets, the infamous Walker spy ring was broken up and arrested for betraying Naval secrets to the Soviets (and not long after that, another Soviet spy, Ronald Pelton, was arrested for giving away, among other things, the cable tapping operation known as Operation Ivy Bells.) The timing of Walker’s arrest was suspicious and Ames became scared.

“I knew how well we had the Soviet system penetrated. It was only a matter of time before one of our spies learned what I had done. I was very vulnerable.”

Ames immediately moved to protect himself. He met with his Soviet handlers and gave them the name of all of the CIA’s “human assets” that he knew (with the exception of one friend whom he did not want to betray, but later did – on 2 occasions!) along with several pounds of CIA intelligence reports (apparently, he simply whisked them out of the CIA’s office in his briefcase.) The Soviet Politburo, severely embarrassed by the CIA’s success in recruiting spies, ordered a mass arrest, executing many of the spies that Ames sold out.

Naturally, the CIA noticed that their spies were disappearing and ordered an investigation. Still reeling from the paralyzing effects of a career-destroying witch-hunt a few years earlier, the investigation did not focus on trying to find a mole, preferring to explore other logical explanations. CIA investigators mistakenly concluded that the “1985 losses” (as they became known) were unrelated. Some were thought to have been caused by a defecting agent, others by mistakes made by the spies themselves. This was apparently not convincing, however, and several hard-nosed agents pressed for further investigation.

One of the CIA officers assigned to the case had a background in accounting and had the brilliantly obvious insight that the best way to find a mole was to find unexplained wealth among your own agents (such a tact may have helped nail Pelton, who sold out Ivy Bells for $35,000 to pay off his debts, and maybe even Walker too.)

All during this time, Ames was working, and getting paid (rather generously), for the Soviets. He made no attempts to hide his newfound wealth, nor did his free-spending wife. Expensive wardrobe, a Jaguar sports car, Rolex watches, and so on. Most assumed that Rosario came from a wealthy family (some rather sloppy investigation confirmed that, but it turns out that though the family was socially prominent it was still poor), but one agent who knew her and Ames from Mexico City knew that wasn’t true, and reported it.

That proved to be Ames’ undoing. He and his wife’s overspending were a vital clue, though it didn’t actually prove anything. One investigator noticed, however, that Ames had made several suspicious bank deposits in 1985. These deposits happened to coincide with the days that he had lunch with his Soviet handler (whom everyone thought Ames was trying to develop as an “asset.”) Ames had taken few precautions to hide his payments, and it was easy to build a case from there.

On February 21, 1994, Ames and his wife were arrested by the FBI. Investigators had found several damning pieces of evidence, including letters to and from his Soviet handlers, and further evidence of he and his wife’s gluttony. She was sentenced to 5 years in prison, then deported back to Columbia. He was sentenced to life in prison. He jokes that, ironically, he sealed his own fate: The KGB had no one to swap for him. It had killed all of the spies it had arrested who were worth trading.

Ames would later attempt to rationalize his treason. “A lot of the barriers that should have stopped me from betraying my country were gone,” he said. “The first barrier was the idea that political intelligence matters. It doesn’t.” Ames said he had become disillusioned because several presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon, had ignored the CIA’s findings because they did not suit the White House’s political agenda. “I realized these men’s actions do not excuse mine, but they did influence my decision making and help grease the slope…I also had come to believe that the CIA was morally corrupt. The CIA is all about maintaining and expanding American imperial power, which I had come to think was wrong… and finally, I did not feel any sense of loyalty to what mass culture had become. How does treason fit into all of this? In some ways, not at all. I would love to say that I did what I did out of some moral outrage over our country’s acts of imperialism or a political statement or out of anger toward the CIA or even a love of the Soviet Union. But the sad truth is that I did what I did because of the money and I can’t get away from that. I wanted a future. I wanted what I saw [Rosario and I] could have together. Taking the money was essential to the recreation of myself and the continuous of us as a couple.”

Interestingly enough, a recent Nicolas Kristof column in the New York Times purports that the CIA suspected that Aldrich Ames gave up Valerie Plame’s identity to the Soviets before his arrest, thus compromising her undercover security long before White House officials reportedly leaked the information. I generally take Kristof with a grain of salt, however, so you’re free to take from that what you want…

Furthermore, the investigator who has taken up the Plame case is one John Dion, the head of the Justice Department’s counterespionage division. He also just happens to have been the lead investigator on the Aldrich Ames case (as well as on former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, another infamous spy.)

In case you can’t tell, I’m endlessly fascinated by these tales of espionage. For more information regarding the Ames case, check out:

Update: Now that I think about it, the fact that Dion, the man who prosecuted Ames, is investigating the Plame case may have been what caused Kristof to point to Ames as the one who outed Plame… I’ve seen reporters make bigger stretches, but who knows?

Oshkosh b’ Gosh

The Cold War really was an amazingly strange time. I was alive during that time, but I was too young to really understand what was going on. If I was older and I was aware of some of the things that are now known about that time, I’m not sure how I would have reacted. A while back I read a book about submarine espionage called Blind Man’s Bluff, and I was shocked by the daring and audacity of our submarine forces.

One story in particular caught my eye. Operation Ivy Bells was a 1970s U.S. Navy and NSA plot to bug Soviet underwater communications cables in the Sea of Okhotsk*. Submarines periodically serviced the device and recovered tapes from it, providing U.S. Intelligence with tons of valuable data. Its an utterly fascinating story, and it demonstrates yet again America’s reliance on technology. (There is much more to the story than I will go into here, but I wrote a more detailed summary at E2. Read the whole thing, as they say… but if you really want to get into details, you should check out the book)

The wildly successful cable tapping operations in the Okhotsk was eventually discovered by the Soviets in the early 1980s. It was originally thought that the discovery was caused by a U.S. submarine mishap in which a sub fell on the cable (*ahem*), but when all the intelligence was analyzed, that explanation just didn’t fit. In 1985, U.S. authorities arrested Ronald W. Pelton, a former NSA employee who had sold out the Okhotsk cable tapping operation to the Soviets for $35,000. Yes, the Soviets were able to uncover one of our most important secrets for a paltry $35,000. Another spy named John Walker (and a ring of friends and family members whom he had recruited) was also caught in 1985. Between the two of them, the Soviets were able to get just as good a look at our communications as we were of theirs, and they didn’t need to spend years of research, millions of dollars in investments in technology, and risk their submariners’ lives.

Now, the contrast between the ways the Soviets went about information gathering and the way we did is an interesting one. The Soviets used a low-tech, inexspensive methodology that was very successful (a defecting KGB agent referred to the Walker ring as “the most important espionage victory in KGB history.”) The U.S. spent millions of dollars in technology and research, then daringly entered Soviet waters to place the taps. The U.S. method was just as successful, but more costly. Then again, the research and technology that enabled the cable tapping operations weren’t exclusive to these missions.

Its an interesting example of how a secure system can be undone by simple human interactions, isn’t it?

* Okhotsk was typically mispronounced as “Oshkosh” by those who partook on these missions (hence the title of this post and a chapter in the book)

Security & Technology

The other day, I was looking around for some new information on Quicksilver (Neal Stephenson’s new novel, a follow up to Cryptonomicon) and I came across Stephenson’s web page. I like everything about that page, from the low-tech simplicity of its design, to the pleading tone of the subject matter (the “continuous partial attention” bit always gets me). At one point, he gives a summary of a talk he gave in Toronto a few years ago:

Basically I think that security measures of a purely technological nature, such as guns and crypto, are of real value, but that the great bulk of our security, at least in modern industrialized nations, derives from intangible factors having to do with the social fabric, which are poorly understood by just about everyone. If that is true, then those who wish to use the Internet as a tool for enhancing security, freedom, and other good things might wish to turn their efforts away from purely technical fixes and try to develop some understanding of just what the social fabric is, how it works, and how the Internet could enhance it. However this may conflict with the (absolutely reasonable and understandable) desire for privacy.

And that quote got me to thinking about technolology and security, and how technology never really replaces human beings, it just makes certain tasks easier, quicker, and more efficient. There was a lot of talk about this sort of thing around the early 90s, when certain security experts were promoting the use of strong cryptography and digital agents that would choose what products we would buy and spend our money for us.

As it turns out, most of those security experts seem to be changing their mind. There are several reasons for this, chief among them fallibility and, quite frankly, a lack of demand. It is impossible to build an infallible system (at least, it’s impossible to recognize that you have built such a system), but even if you had accomplished such a feat, what good would it be? A perfectly secure system is also a perfectly useless system. Besides that, you have human ignorance to contend with. How many of you actually encrypt your email? It sounds odd, but most people don’t even notice the little yellow lock that comes up in their browser when they are using a secure site.

Applying this to our military, there are some who advocate technology (specifically airpower) as a replacement for the grunt. The recent war in Iraq stands in stark contrast to these arguments, despite the fact that the civilian planners overruled the military’s request for additional ground forces. In fact, Rumsfeld and his civilian advisors had wanted to send significantly fewer ground forces, because they believed that airpower could do virtually everything by itself. The only reason there were as many as there were was because General Franks fought long and hard for increased ground forces (being a good soldier, you never heard him complain, but I suspect there will come a time when you hear about this sort of thing in his memoirs).

None of which is to say that airpower or technology are not necessary, nor do I think that ground forces alone can win a modern war. The major lesson of this war is that we need to have balanced forces in order to respond with flexibility and depth to the varied and changing threats our country faces. Technology plays a large part in this, as it makes our forces more effective and more likely to succeed. But, to paraphrase a common argument, we need to keep in mind that weapons don’t fight wars, soldiers do. While technology we used provided us with a great deal of security, its also true that the social fabric of our armed forces were undeniably important in the victory.

One thing Stephenson points to is an excerpt from a Sherlock Holmes novel in which Holmes argues:

…the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful country-side…The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish…But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the


Once again, the war in Iraq provides us with a great example. Embedding reporters in our units was a controversial move, and there are several reasons the decision could have been made. One reason may very well have been that having reporters around while we fought the war may have made our troops behave better than they would have otherwise. So when we watch the reports on TV, all we see are the professional, honorable soldiers who bravely fought an enemy which was fighting dirty (because embedding reporters revealed that as well).

Communications technology made embedding reporters possible, but it was the complex social interactions that really made it work (well, to our benefit at least). We don’t derive security straight from technology, we use it to bolster our already existing social constructs, and the further our technology progresses, the easier and more efficient security becomes.

Update 6.6.03 – Tacitus discusses some similar issues…

Imperative of Intelligence Reform

September 11 and the Imperative of Reform in the U.S. Intelligence Community – Additional Views of Senator Richard C. Shelby : When the findings and recommendations of the congressional joint inquiry into September 11 were published last year, Senator Shelby (R-AL) independantly released a lengthy document detailing his “additional views”. Its interesting and more readable than most such discussions, and Shelby proposes some fairly radical concepts:

Intelligence collectors – whose status and bureaucratic influence depends to no small extent upon the monopolization of “their” information-stream – often fail to recognize the importance of providing analysts with “deep” access to data. The whole point of intelligence analysis against transnational targets is to draw patterns out of a mass of seemingly unrelated information, and it is crucial that the analysis of such patterns not be restricted only to personnel from a single agency. As Acting DIA Director Lowell Jacoby observed in his written testimony before the Joint Inquiry, “information considered irrelevant noise by one set of analysts may provide critical clues or reveal significant relationships when subjected to analytic scrutiny by another.”

This suggests that the fundamental intellectual assumptions that have guided our Intelligence Community’s approach to managing national security information for half a century may be in some respects crucially flawed, in that it may not be true that information-holders – the traditional arbiters of who can see “their” data – are the entities best placed to determine whether outsiders have any “need to know” data in their possession. Analysts who seek access to information, it turns out, may well be the participants best equipped to determine what their particular expertise and contextual understanding can bring to the analysis of certain types of data.

Also notable is his assertion that hard wiring our intelligence community to deal with the terrorist threat is “precisely the wrong answer, because such an approach would surely leave us unprepared for the next major threat, whatever it turns out to be.” Rather, “we need an Intelligence Community agile enough to evolve as threats evolve, on a continuing basis.” [via FAS’s excellent Secrecy News]

Democracy Vs. Secrecy

Democracies and Their Spies by Bruce Berkowitz : The other day, I was discussing some of the evidence presented by Colin Powell at the UN, and, as is readily apparent, the presentation did not warrant a conclusion that an invasion of Iraq is necessary. By its very nature, intelligence requires secrecy. Public knowledge places everyone on a level playing field, but intelligence, by its scarcity and exclusivity, tilts the field to your advantage. Thus, what can be released at any given time must be limited to that which does not nullify whatever advantage said intelligence provides. At this point, however, you are faced with a difficult question:

Now the challenge of operating an intelligence organization in a democracy becomes clear: Voting is essential for democracy; freedom of information is essential for voting; but free-flowing information defeats the functions of intelligence. Or, to put it another way, information is the engine that makes democracy work, whereas the effectiveness of intelligence depends on restricting the flow of information.

Berkowitz seeks to answer this challenge by examining how much secrecy usually exists in a democracy. As it turns out, secrecy in a democratic government is actually a common, and sometimes even necessary, occurrence:

Democracies are not strangers to secrets. Protecting secrets when appropriate, disclosing secrets when proper, and managing secrecy are all normal parts of the democratic process. The same principles that are used to strike a balance among competing interests in a democracy can be used to oversee intelligence secrets as well.

The article is well written and organized, and it provides at least a partial answer to the burning questions that intelligence faces. I say “partial” because Horowitz’s answer is strategic in nature, meaning that it’s looking at the long term effects of keeping and releasing intelligence. In the short term, though, it sure would be nice to know what our government knows about Iraq.

Homeland Defence the First Time

The Kaiser Sows Destruction by Michael Warner : In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, American intelligence agencies are sure to respond in ways that are likely to be profound. Though it is impossible to predict the long-term impact of the 9/11 attacks on intelligence agencies, history suggests that we are following in the steps of our predecessors.

On a summer night in New York City in 1916, a pier laden with a thousand tons of munitions destined for Britain, France, and Russia in their war against Imperial Germany suddenly caught fire and exploded with a force that scarred the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel, shattered windows in Times Square, rocked the Brooklyn Bridge, and woke sleepers as far away as Maryland. Within days, local authorities had concluded that the blasts at “Black Tom” pier were the work of German saboteurs seeking to destroy supplies headed from neutral America to Germany’s enemies.

Black Tom was but one of many incidents in the two-year German sabotage campaign in America before and during WWI, but it made a deep impression, and the parallels between the American response then and now are striking. The effects of the German sabotage campaign on American intelligence took at least three decades to work themselves out, and it is likely that the 9/11 attacks will also exert significant pressures for change in the American intelligence community for a long time to come.

Which is why the appointment of Henry Kissinger to head an official inquiry into national security problems, and his subsequent stepping down, to are ultimately pointless. As Fritz Schranck notes:

“…the creation and appointment of �official commissions� is a time-honored way to create a record on which political campaigns can be run. More often than not, these commissions exist to create the illusion of substantive action, while focused on the reality of political chit-building. Reviewing the facts and current laws and devising a non-partisan set of recommendations on the commission�s subject matter is a distant second in priority. (By the way, the official commission technique is used at all levels of government.)”

Official commissions run by politicians have their uses, but the real progress will be made by the agencies themselves, whose leaders must also play the political game to get the necessary resources to institute the necessary reforms. As history showed us during the German sabotage campaign and our response, this can be an incredibly slow process, taking decades to iron out the details. The intelligence community has a thankless job. The war they fight is only visable when they fail and their best hope is to fight to a stalemate.

Spy Games

Working with the CIA by Garrett Jones : An interesting and informative article written by a retired case officer for the CIA. His stated goal is to provide insight into the working relationship between the military and the CIA. Basically, what it comes down to is communication: The CIA doesn’t understand enough about the Military and its operations, and, conversely, the Military doesn’t understand enough about the CIA and its operations. Good, effective communication is essential. In the course of explaining the ins-and-outs of the profession, Jones illuminates some of the unique logistical challenges of the profession, as well as some of the “pretty strange people” you meet when recruiting intelligence “assets”:

Before everything else, human assets are recruited because they have access to secret information that can be obtained in no other manner. This means that not only may the asset not be a nice person, it also means he was not selected because he was brave, smart, or particularly hard-working.

Thus, by definition, the best assets are pretty strange people. The case officers handling these assets normally develop a fairly complicated relationship with their assets, becoming everything from father confessor to morale booster, from disciplinarian to best buddy. Like sausages and laws, if you have a queasy stomach, you don’t want to see the case officer-asset relationship up close.

As usual, crappy movies and video games have given us the wrong idea about the intelligence community… Spies aren’t super-commandos or James Bond-like secret agents, they are mostly just repeating what they’ve heard from people or what has come across their desk. They do not react favourably to being asked to do something new and strange. Additionally, Jones notes that “existing CIA stations were not established in order to support your mission, and existing CIA human assets were not originally recruited to support your mission”. What this means is that intelligence is slow, and that there will be a lot of frustration and anxiety before the situation improves. Again, its a fascinating article, and well worth the read. [found via the Punchstack]