True Spies Episode 136, Aldrich Ames - Selling Secrets, Part 1
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies, the podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.
BRYAN DENSON: Even the best spy agencies in the world are going to have people who flip and work for the other guys and gals. And at that particular point, there was a slew of CIA officers who either had already flipped or were about to.
NARRATOR: The CIA is a paranoid place at the best of times. Information is its currency and it’s heavily guarded. But in the 1980s that paranoia was at a fever pitch.
BRYAN DENSON: Spying only requires two people to be able to communicate. And the trick is for those two people to never be seen anywhere near each other. And you have to assume there are multiple penetrations. There were just a slew of them in the ‘80s and ‘90s - late ‘80s, early ‘90s era - Who fell under investigation and ultimately were caught.
NARRATOR: With the Cold War still raging, the CIA and the KGB were locked in a battle, a battle to outwit and out-maneuver each other. Both were desperate to recruit people from the other side, sending agents out to meet with potential assets.
BRYAN DENSON: They have an authorized meeting where they're supposed to be doing the good work of the intelligence agency, in trying to recruit them, to try and get them to switch teams
NARRATOR: But often, it doesn’t go as planned.
BRYAN DENSON: And ultimately these turncoat spies, as others have done, decided to turn it the other way.
NARRATOR: By going over to the other side.
BRYAN DENSON: And, they are typically what you call ‘walk-ins’, right? People who voluntarily spy against their own country.
NARRATOR: Being a turncoat may sound easy, but the risks - if you get caught - usually far outweigh the benefits.
BRYAN DENSON: They marched him down the same hallway that they marched all the others. Put him on his knees and put a bullet in the back of his head and buried him in an unmarked grave.
NARRATOR: In this two-part True Spies story, we’ll hear about Aldrich Ames - the CIA double agent responsible for the deaths of at least 10 foreign assets.
BRYAN DENSON: These are the people who’ve been secretly working for the United States. And were now dead.
NARRATOR: Why it took nearly 10 years to catch him.
LES WISER: We were looking for something and saw nothing. He was looking for nothing and saw something. That would be the message to him.
NARRATOR: And how he was finally taken down.
BRYAN DENSON: Dell Spry, who was from the Deep South here in the United States, said, “That therrre's a spy note!” And it was and that little piece of paper, I think, turned that case.
NARRATOR: June 13th, 1985. CIA agent Aldrich Ames walks into Chadwick’s restaurant in Washington D.C, a place infamous for its high society clientele and champagne brunches. Although a heavy drinker, Ames is there for another reason - to have a business lunch with an associate. They exchange small talk mostly, keeping a low profile among their illustrious fellow diners. At the end of their meal, Ames hands his associate two plastic bags full of paper. In return, he receives a bag of his own. The two men say their goodbyes and part ways. On his way home, Ames pulls over and opens the bag. Inside, as promised, is $50,000 in cash.
BRYAN DENSON: And inside the intelligence agency here in the States, they refer to that as “The Big Dump”.
NARRATOR: This is Bryan Denson, an investigative journalist for many years, he has written about countless spies.
BRYAN DENSON: Every spy that I've written about ultimately, really loved that sort of ‘very cool globetrotting, foreign ports of call, secret meetings’ lifestyle. I mean, everybody wants to be James Bond.
NARRATOR: Aldrich Ames, or Rick to those who knew him, was no different.
BRYAN DENSON: Ames grew up in McLean, Virginia, which is the community right next to CIA headquarters, and his father was a CIA officer there.
NARRATOR: Despite - or perhaps because of - the secretive nature of his father’s work, Ames was enamored by it.
BRYAN DENSON: There's this weird mystique about the Agency and the family legacy. And a lot of CIA officers tend to either talk about the job in a way that isn't giving up any major secrets but ultimately encourages folks like Rick Ames to join.
NARRATOR: Rick Ames shared several similarities with his father.
BRYAN DENSON: Both of these guys were very smart. These are the guys, they're the brightest boys in 11th grade.
NARRATOR: But as he got older, Rick started to replicate some of his father’s less admirable traits.
BRYAN DENSON: By all accounts, Rick Ames's dad was as much of a schlub or more than he was.
NARRATOR: Both men drank. By his teens, Rick Ames was smoking 60 a day. Although an intelligent young man, he flunked out of college. But his dad has already pulled some strings and gets him a summer job marking up classified documents at CIA headquarters. Eventually, Rick goes back to college, earns his degree, and is offered a place in the Agency’s career trainee program.
BRYAN DENSON: He went to the Farm.
NARRATOR: The Farm. Better known as spy school. To this day the US government has never officially acknowledged its existence but True Spies aficionados will know that it’s where the CIA sends those destined for deep-cover roles and clandestine operations. There, Ames learned the skill of cultivating and managing undercover agents. He met a young woman called Nancy at the Farm. They married not long after. And after graduating in 1969, Ames was assigned to Ankara, Turkey. Nancy joined him.
BRYAN DENSON: And they were posing as civilian workers at a military base, but doing the work of the Agency in the evenings. He was supposed to recruit, I believe, a specific Soviet agent, but failed at it.
NARRATOR: The Agency was not impressed with Ames’s performance and, in ‘72, he was recalled to headquarters. Already volatile, Ames grows bitter about his treatment.
BRYAN DENSON: I don't know that he thought he had done a good job, but based on the personality profile that I developed about the guy, he probably felt like anything that didn't go his way was somebody else's fault, not his own.
NARRATOR: But, back at CIA headquarters at Langley, he is recognized as a potential fit for counterintelligence.
BRYAN DENSON: Counterintelligence was a place where he had some smarts.
NARRATOR: Ames enrolls in the Russian language program and is stationed at the Agency’s Soviet-East European, or SE, Division.
BRYAN DENSON: The Soviet East European division was a very important one, right in the middle of the darkest hours of the Cold War. And Ames was somebody, they hoped, who would be able to recruit some Soviet spies to work for the United States. And there were great opportunities for a whole lot of CIA officers to do that, particularly from that division.
NARRATOR: Despite his drinking, to his colleagues Ames was popular. A lovable rogue.
BRYAN DENSON: A fellow CIA officer who rode with him, Sandy Grimes, she rode to work with him in a carpool, and he was always late when it was his day to drive. His hair was uncombed. And he walks out with his big old loafers. His teeth were yellow from constant cigarette smoking. He was kind of just a disaster. But, inside the counterintelligence end of the Agency, I think he was very well-liked.
NARRATOR: His time in counterintelligence doesn’t begin well.
BRYAN DENSON: He was trying to make a penetration of the Soviet diplomatic corps. He got a break serving as a handler for a Soviet diplomat. And the diplomat was given a spy camera that was disguised as a tube of lip balm. And later, the agent was arrested. And fearing torture, he swallowed a CIA-issued suicide pill and died. So not an auspicious start for Ames or his source.
NARRATOR: And it sort of continues in that vein. Once, while posted in New York, Ames leaves his briefcase on the subway - full of classified information. Luckily for him, someone returned it to an FBI agent.
BRYAN DENSON: And of course, it was a huge embarrassment for Ames. Ames wasn’t what they call a ‘blue flamer’ - somebody who was really on a meteoric rise. I mean, he had had a very rough start in the Agency.
NARRATOR: Despite the mishaps though, Ames showed flickers of brilliance. His performance was consistently ranked as excellent by his superiors for much of the late ‘70s and he was promoted several times. But while his career was going well, the same cannot be said for his marriage, which was by now under strain. His wife, Nancy, wanted to stay in New York but Ames knew that if he didn’t take another overseas posting, his career would flatline.
BRYAN DENSON: He had to volunteer, it was the only way he was going to get advanced in the Agency. And he was basically given another chance after his first posting. So, yeah, it was voluntary but mandatory if he wanted to stay in the Agency and rise in the Agency.
NARRATOR: Eventually, in 1981, Ames takes an assignment in Mexico City. Nancy stays in New York. In Mexico, things start to spiral. Ames has several affairs. His drinking becomes a problem. Once, at a diplomatic reception at the American Embassy, Ames got into a loud, profane argument with a Cuban official after one too many margaritas. On another occasion, he crashes his car at a busy interchange. The traffic cop who questioned him realized he was so drunk he couldn’t answer even basic questions. When a colleague of Ames’s turned up to resolve the situation, Ames didn’t recognize him.
BRYAN DENSON: And it was in 1982, the summer of 1982, there in Mexico City that he met Rosario.
NARRATOR: Rosario, a cultural attaché at the Colombian Embassy in Mexico City. Rosario was recruited as an asset by one of Ames’ CIA colleagues, who in turn introduced them.
BRYAN DENSON: They began a torrid love affair.
NARRATOR: Rosario knew spies all over the city, including a KGB officer. Ames and Rosario’s relationship grew serious. He realized he no longer had any interest in salvaging his marriage. But he ignored Agency regulations stipulating all agents inform their superiors of any romances with foreign nationals. Ames wasn’t a ‘details’ man, and to him, this was a minor detail. As his Mexico posting came to an end, an old colleague recommended Ames for a senior role back in the SE Division at Langley. Luckily for Ames, the CIA could be the perfect place to hide a drinking problem.
BRYAN DENSON: The CIA's sort of interesting because we know about SCIFs, right?
NARRATOR: SCIFs. Sensitive compartmented information facilities. Rooms within a building that are blocked to most personnel. Those who are allowed in can only discuss the information concerned within that very room. It’s all part of the CIA’s intense security structure around secret intelligence.
BRYAN DENSON: The CIA is like a SCIF within a SCIF, within another SCIF, and another SCIF. Right? I mean, the whole fence line around this, whatever it is, a 258-acre campus is a SCIF. Right. They've got all these, somehow radio-wave defeating and surveillance-defeating things. And then you walk in and you're just constantly walking into different places where everyone can share secrets, but only people who have to know it.
NARRATOR: Ames was well-liked by his old team in the SE Division. And the SCIFs meant few people actually knew about his drinking. The recommendation was approved. But the job wasn’t just a middle-ranking one. Ames became the counterintelligence branch chief for Soviet operations where he had access to all the CIA’s plans against the KGB and GRU - Russia’s military intelligence wing. There, he had oversight of the Soviet agents the Agency was developing. Shortly after taking the job, Ames informs his superiors of his relationship with Rosario and files for divorce from Nancy. Both relationships put immense strain on his finances.
BRYAN DENSON: Rosario had very expensive tastes. And, If you're going through a divorce, you have money troubles. Right? Naturally, those two go hand in hand.
NARRATOR: Rosario racked up bills of $400 each month just to call her mother back in Colombia. She spent similar amounts on clothes, jewelry - anything she wanted. When the divorce came through, Ames’s money problems became acute. He had to pay off over $30,000 of their combined debt and also provide $300 a month in child support - all on a salary of a little over $50,000.
BRYAN DENSON: Going through a terrible divorce, that's considered a vulnerability inside the Agency. Obviously, he was at that point trying to figure out a way to get some money.
NARRATOR: Ames even thought about robbing a bank. But then, he had a better idea.
BRYAN DENSON: He was in counterintelligence. And he knew the names of the folks that the United States had recruited. And Ames, he had the keys to the kingdom right there.
NARRATOR: In early 1985, Ames was in London on official Agency business. One night he ends up at a pub with some fellow CIA officers. One of them tells the group she has special powers.
BRYAN DENSON: She said she was a practicing witch and she said she had a talent for identifying spies.
NARRATOR: Ames looked at his colleague and said: “Well, maybe you will have the chance to prove your powers someday.” By the time he’s returned home, Ames has made his decision.
BRYAN DENSON: He turned 44 and that was when he decided to switch teams.
NARRATOR: Ames arranges an official meeting with a Soviet Embassy contact - one Sergey Chuvakhin, an expert on nuclear arms control. The CIA hoped to recruit Chuvakhin but Ames had other ideas. Ames set up a lunch date with Chuvakhin for April 16, 1985. The morning of the lunch, Ames writes a note. In it, he states: “I need $50,000 and in return here is information on three agents the CIA is developing in the Soviet Union right now.”
BRYAN DENSON: The primary cause of people switching teams like that is money. That's the leading one. And, for all of the CIA officers that I can think of who have betrayed the United States, in that era, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was money rather than ideology or something else.
NARRATOR: But Ames had deliberately written the names of agents that were ultimately worthless to the Soviets - those that were in fact double agents for the KGB, not real turncoats. If the Soviets buy it, he can take the $50,000, fix up his finances, and continue serving America. After slipping the note into an unmarked envelope, Ames heads to the Mayflower Hotel in downtown D.C. Arriving half an hour before the appointment, he heads to the bar.
BRYAN DENSON: He was drinking a little courage before he went over there. And ultimately got tanked.
NARRATOR: Sergey Chuvakhin is a no-show. Now angry as well as drunk, Ames makes a bold decision. He heads to the Soviet Embassy.
BRYAN DENSON: Not that terribly far from the White House, I might add.
NARRATOR: Becoming, in spy talk, a walk-in.
BRYAN DENSON: People who voluntarily spy against their own country.
NARRATOR: There he asks the receptionist for Chuvakhin and slips her the envelope. A few minutes later Chuvakhin arrives in the lobby. Ames says they should schedule another lunch. Chuvakhin replies: “I’ll be busy.” “We’ll see,” Ames says, before walking out.
BRYAN DENSON: And it was the following month that he returned to the Soviet Embassy, and that's where he ultimately met Victor Cherkashin, who was the counterintelligence chief there in Washington. And Cherkashin let him know that the KGB accepted his offer.
NARRATOR: It was that easy. Victor Cherkashin says Ames should continue to meet only with Sergey Chuvakhin. Two days later the pair finally have their lunch at Joe & Moe’s steakhouse. They discuss arms controls and other superficial security matters. At the end of the meal, both men stand to leave. Chuvakhin hands Ames a bag saying it contains some press releases he might find of interest. Ames takes it and hurries out to his car. Driving onto the George Washington Memorial Parkway, Ames pulls in at an overlook offering sweeping views of the Potomac river. Reaching inside the bag he finds a package wrapped in brown paper. Within it are 500 crisp $100 notes - $50,000.
BRYAN DENSON: He drove home feeling like a rich man. He knew at that point he'd be able to pay off all of his problems that he was having with his divorce and trying to make his insanely climbing wife, Rosario happy.
NARRATOR: Ames says to himself, “No more.“ That this was a one-time deal. Or so he thought. Only a few days later Ames learned that the FBI had arrested John A Walker Jr., a former Navy chief warrant officer. Walker had been spying for the Soviets since 1967.
BRYAN DENSON: John Walker gave up a ton of information and intelligence that was really, really damaging to the United States and its defenses against the Soviet Union.
NARRATOR: Walker even handed over intelligence outlining the positions of all of America’s missile targets in Russia, if war broke out between the two. Aldrich Ames was terrified at the news of Walker’s arrest. And then he realized he’d crossed some sort of line himself. If the CIA discovered what he had already done, Ames was facing life in prison. There was no going back.
BRYAN DENSON: The die was cast for him and at that point, he was their boy.
NARRATOR: Now in a dreamlike state, Ames starts to cover his tracks. At CIA headquarters he collects all the ‘restricted handling’ files he has access to - files containing the reports, memos, and overseas cables on all of the Soviet agents working for the US. Along with another note to his new handlers, Ames puts the files into plastic bags and simply walks them out of the building to his car. According to Bryan Denson, it is the biggest trove of classified intelligence ever hauled out of the building. On June 13th, 1985 he drives to Chadwick’s restaurant and meets with Chuvakhin again. Upon leaving the lunch, Ames received another $50,000, while Chuvakhin received the names of 20 Soviet agents on the CIA payroll. The meeting became known as “The Big Dump”.
BRYAN DENSON: And The Big Dump was pretty significant because it was the genesis of a whole lot more money either paid to Ames or promised to be paid.
NARRATOR: Among the names Ames handed over were colonels and majors, electronics engineers, and diplomats. But the most significant name was that of General Polyakov.
BRYAN DENSON: General Polyakov had been working for the United States for a long, long time. He was a Soviet GRU guy, a military intelligence guy. And he was really the crown jewels.
NARRATOR: Codenamed TOPHAT, Polyakov passed Soviet secrets over to the Americans for 18 years. But unlike Ames or most spies for that matter, he didn’t do it for the money.
BRYAN DENSON: All that Polyakov ever wanted in exchange was, he was a fly fisherman. And occasionally they would send him the correct hooks or lines that he desired. So he was not spying against his country for money. He was too dignified to have done that.
NARRATOR: Polyakov believed the Soviet Union had fallen into the hands of corrupt leaders. But he also feared the US wasn’t strong enough to win an all-out war with the Russians. So, he gave the Americans the Soviet strategies for chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare, along with the names of countless spies. But by the fall of 1985, Ames’s colleagues were beginning to lose assets like Polyakov at an alarming rate.
BRYAN DENSON: They marched him down the same hallway that they marched all the others that Ames betrayed. Put him on his knees and put a bullet in the back of his head and buried him in an unmarked grave. And that's the tragedy of this, that a guy like Polyakov, who really was doing good for the world, was ultimately put to death because of Ames' betrayals.
NARRATOR: The capture of these agents was a win-win for Ames. First, he earned money from giving them up. Second, having been captured, they were no longer a threat to his cover. Ames justified his actions in a cold, calculating manner. All agents knew what they were signing up for, he told himself. What happened to them was simply an occupational hazard.
BRYAN DENSON: People like Ames somehow were able to compartmentalize their emotions in a way that made them keep going and keep taking that money and keep doing damage to their own countries.
NARRATOR: The Chadwicks meet was the first of 14 between Ames and Chuvakhin over the next year. At first, Ames hid the bricks of cash in his closet. He didn’t even tell Rosario, now his wife, about the real source of his newfound wealth. But within the CIA, it was soon clear there was a mole. Sandy Grimes, the woman who Ames carpooled with, saw all of her assets disappear.
BRYAN DENSON: Sandy Grimes at CIA describes the gut-punch feeling of suddenly recognizing that their best Soviet bloc spies, working again secretly for the CIA, are vanishing one by one. They're disappearing.
NARRATOR: One was the Russian Colonel Leonid Poleshchuk. He was picked up by the KGB collecting a dead drop of $20,000 worth of rubles stashed in a fake rock in a Moscow park.
BRYAN DENSON: And that's never a good sign for a spy agency to recognize that its best assets are vanishing because now you have to figure out why.
NARRATOR: One of Grime’s colleagues had warned her beforehand not to conduct dead drops in Moscow. It was too risky, she said. Now she remembered that advice clearly, from a Russian-speaking agent widely regarded as an expert on Soviet affairs. And what was his name? Aldrich Ames. Knowing the risks he was running, Ames tried to throw his colleagues off the scent. And, at first, the CIA’s attention focuses not on Ames but another agent - an agent who had been fired from the Agency and was now suspected of giving up what he knew to the Soviets in retaliation. Eventually, he fled to Russia and it was confirmed he had handed over several names. But there were assets disappearing that he couldn’t possibly have known about and that was a big worry for Ames.
BRYAN DENSON: Because, again, those files are kept very closely and by a very small group of people. And so the idea that, all of them, all of those cases were lost suddenly… if I were Rick Ames, I would have been losing my freaking mind.
NARRATOR: By the end of 1986, the CIA had no Soviet assets left, around two dozen of them having vanished. The KGB helped to divert attention from Ames by planting false intel that the mole was, in fact, in another division. The CIA was seemingly getting nowhere with its investigation. But then, in 1989, one of the mole-hunt team voiced surprise about the drastic change in Ames’s appearance.
BRYAN DENSON: I don't think at first, any of Ames’s colleagues were all that disturbed about Ames. They just noticed this monstrous change in the guy. I mean, here he was, this schlub with the corduroy jackets that were just a little unkempt and maybe the wrong size and a little cheap. And, his scuffed shoes and the bad hair and the awful glasses.
NARRATOR: But then… cut.
BRYAN DENSON: And suddenly he's a guy wearing capped teeth and he's got a tan and was driving to work in a Jaguar and dressing like a movie star.
NARRATOR: Grimes and her team make Ames take a polygraph test. He panics, telling his KGB handlers he will likely get discovered.
BRYAN DENSON: There are two questions that are typically red flag ones.: “Have you had any contact with a foreign intelligence officer that is unauthorized or whatever?” Right. And the other one is, “Are you concealing contact?” And the polygraph should pick up a little concern.
NARRATOR: But Ames’s KGB contact simply tells him to relax. Answer the questions calmly and nothing will show up. And, to Ames’s astonishment, nothing did.
BRYAN DENSON: The truth is, I don't know that polygraphs are everything that everyone says they are. It's more the effect of the person rather than the heartbeat that's really going to make folks drill down on them as a suspect in a crime. And Ames essentially passed his polygraphs.
NARRATOR: Even during the polygraph test, the investigators didn’t press Ames all that much on the source of his new-found wealth.
BRYAN DENSON: Weirdly, they didn't ask a whole lot of questions about the money. His own colleagues didn't ask a lot about the money. But when finally they did, Ames confided in one of the officers. “Oh, yeah, my wife Rosario's family's loaded.” And so, I'm dressing this way and driving this fancy car.”
NARRATOR: The team despatched an investigator down to Colombia to see if Rosario’s family were indeed wealthy. And what they turn up is exactly that.
BRYAN DENSON: It was somebody known to the CIA who came back with reports that Rosario’s family was wealthy and ultimately came back saying, “Oh yeah, they're loaded and they're, so and so.” It was like, “Oh, well, maybe it's not Ames, right?” So that was a cover that was just for a time-bought hook, line, and sinker.
NARRATOR: Again the mole hunt goes cold. By 1991, Sandy Grimes, the CIA officer whose Soviet assets had all been rounded up, was despondent.
BRYAN DENSON: She was about to retire. She was done.
NARRATOR: Her boss comes to her with a proposition.
BRYAN DENSON: He said, “I'd like you to stay. I'd like for you to take another look at what they call, ‘The disappearances of the 10’.” And Sandy told Paul, “You've just named the only job I will not turn down.” And in duty to the country and in duty to those 10 assets that were lost during her tenure at the CIA, Sandy agreed to do it and stayed on.
NARRATOR: Grimes had long thought Ames the likely mole. She assembled a team to investigate, tracking Ames’s every move in and out of CIA headquarters.
BRYAN DENSON: Typically counterintelligence folks have to be able to investigate stuff, sort of like investigative reporters. But they were smart enough to say, “We don't know enough, so we're just going to collect every scrap of information we can. Right?” They're going to leave no stone unturned if they have a suspect. They're going to look at everything they've ever done or said.
NARRATOR: Every CIA employee has a blue card, a card to enter and exit headquarters. Sandy puts together a timeline of every entry and exit Ames has made. An onerous task.
BRYAN DENSON: Ames was a chain smoker. And so he was constantly leaving the building because you couldn't smoke in the building.
NARRATOR: At the same time, the Department of Justice granted the team permission to look at Ames’ bank accounts in secret. What they saw astonished them. Ames had deposited $1.3 million into the bank over the last few years. But what made them more suspicious was the nature of many of these deposits. They were between $5,000 and $9,000 each. Just below the threshold at which you have to declare them. Ames’ bank accounts looked more like those of a drug lord than a CIA middle manager. Sandy matched these deposits against the timeline she had built on Ames.
BRYAN DENSON: She was able to show every time he left the building.
NARRATOR: When the picture was complete, Sandy gave an audible gasp.
BRYAN DENSON: They discovered that he had made huge cash deposits after meetings with a specific Soviet diplomat that he had authorized visits with and, ultimately, it was very clear that Ames was up to no good.
NARRATOR: But there was a problem. The CIA couldn’t do anything itself with the evidence. It is not a law enforcement agency. The FBI was the one who’d have to arrest Ames, which meant them opening a criminal investigation. And they were less convinced Ames was the mole. There were other suspects after all. And so, the case met another dead end. At the same time, Ames’ wife Rosario found out the real source of her husband’s wealth.
BRYAN DENSON: She found a slip of paper in his jacket. And, ultimately, it was a drop that he was going to make with the Russians.
NARRATOR: Rosario confronts her husband, who simply says: “Yes, I’m working for the Russians.”
BRYAN DENSON: In the movies, she probably would have screamed and walked out and said, ‘You're a traitor to the country!’ But Rosario didn't say that. Rosario began to realize there was all this money coming in as a result. And she, by all accounts, really enjoyed the lifestyle that the money, the blood money, was providing.
NARRATOR: Sandy Grimes and her team were sickened to think of Ames enjoying the high life, living freely as one of the Agency’s most deadly traitors. But then, in 1993, what felt to them like a small miracle happened. A Russian turncoat to the US told the CIA there was a mole. A turncoat whose identity was highly classified until recently.
BRYAN DENSON: It's public now that Alexander Zaporozhsky helped the CIA and was working for the CIA and ultimately defected to the United States.
NARRATOR: Alexander Zaporozhsky was a colonel in the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence wing. He was sentenced to 18 years for his betrayal but in 2010 the Americans got him back.
BRYAN DENSON: Zaporozhsky became a public figure when the CIA and SVR agreed to a spy swap, which was world famous. Zaporozhsky was traded off for Anna Chapman, the flashy redhead, and all of her pals who were what they call ‘illegals’. They were deep cover, unofficial cover spies who had taken the names and identities of children off of gravestones here in the United States.
NARRATOR: Back in 1993, Zaporozhsky didn’t just tell the CIA they had a mole. He offered intel specific enough to point in the direction of Ames.
BRYAN DENSON: But he had given up, not the names of Aldrich Ames. He said something like, “Well, I know that he worked in such-and-such a division and spent some time in Singapore. But I don't know his name or his rank or any of that stuff.” It was a tip, something like that. And ultimately, the CIA triangulated and figured out, “Well, there's only a certain number of officers who could have done that.” That's the trap you run when you have provided information that could ultimately put you in the crosshairs.
NARRATOR: On May 12, 1993, Sandy Grimes and her team got their wish. The FBI opened a criminal investigation into Aldrich Ames but it was far from certain that they could ever catch him.
LES WISER: It's easy just to say, “Okay, well they could fire him and move him away from all his access to information.” But we had to prove the case in a court of law. That's a high bar. So there's a lot of pressure and everybody feels it. because you know that people have died.
NARRATOR: Next time on True Spies, we’ll hear from the man who led the FBI’s investigation into the most deadly mole in CIA history.
LES WISER: They gave me a financial workup. I remember it was projected onto the wall... And I said, “Okay, so clearly there's something going on here.”
NARRATOR: And what it took to take him down.
LES WISER: We set up a meeting at FBI headquarters and he drove his car and parked in the courtyard. While he was in the meeting, we took the car down to the garage in the basement, FBI headquarters, installed the beacon, and then put the car back up there. So when he came out, his car was there.
NARRATOR: That’s next time on True Spies… I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next week for the final episode of Aldrich Ames, Double Agent. Or subscribe to SPYSCAPE Plus to listen right now. Sign up for early access and bonus content on Apple Podcasts.
Bryan Denson (pictured) is an American author and investigative journalist who writes about spies, terrorists, and national security issues.
Former FBI Agent Leslie G. 'Les' Wiser, Jr. and his team arrested Aldrich Ames, a 31-year veteran of the CIA who was spying for the Russians, in 1994.