The CIA is only as strong as the weakest link. And in the waning years of the Cold War, weak links were in ready supply. A number of trusted Agency officers were caught selling secrets to the Russian regime. And the most notorious traitor? Aldrich Hazen Ames. In Part 2, Sophia Di Martino joins FBI Special Agent Leslie G Wiser Jr. on the toughest assignment of his career so far. But to take down Aldrich Ames, he'll need to bend the rules...
Read the transcript →

True Spies, Ep. 137 - The Ultimate Double Agent, Part 2: Operation Nightmover

NARRATOR: This is 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. Aldrich Ames, The Ultimate Double Agent, Part 2 - Operation Nightmover.

LES WISNER: You knew that people had died. So we didn't want him to compromise any other person. So there's a lot of pressure and everybody felt it. We're working on something that's really important and we have to be successful. We didn't really have a choice. We had to be successful.

NARRATOR: May 24, 1993. FBI Special Agent Leslie G. Wiser Jr. is summoned to see his boss, Robert ‘Bear’ Bryant, at the Bureau’s Washington field office. Wiser sits down in a red leather chair across from Bryant, who gets straight to the point.

LES WISNER: He said we got a case involving a CIA officer. We think he might be working for the Russians. Would you be interested?

NARRATOR: Wiser could hardly believe it. He had worked on big drug cases before but nothing on this scale.

LES WISNER: And I said, “Oh, I've been waiting all my life for a case like this.”

NARRATOR: By 1993, Aldrich Ames had been handing the Russians some of America’s most guarded secrets for eight years. Several people had their suspicions about him, but there was nothing concrete. In this, the second in our two-part look at CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, we’ll hear how the most lethal mole in the Agency’s history was finally caught.

LES WISNER: What we found was a two-inch by two-inch square piece of paper that he had written on and ripped up into about nine pieces. We found eight of those pieces. It was a note to the local KGB official that picked it up.

NARRATOR: And the lengths the FBI had to go to to get their man.

LES WISNER: And don't forget that this is the fall of 1993. And there was this fellow named Pablo Escobar running around Colombia. And during '93, he was blowing things up, setting off bombs around Colombia, including in Bogota. So we were well aware that there was violence in Bogota but we couldn't take weapons with us. We didn't really have time to get deep covers and everything.

NARRATOR: When Les Wiser’s boss handed him the Ames' case, he gave him a small team too - Major Case Squad 43, a new unit created specifically to investigate Aldrich Ames.

LES WISNER: That in itself was interesting because I was junior to most of them and had to work through that. 

NARRATOR: Wiser gets ‘read in’ by the team - brought up to speed on everything the CIA already has on Ames, including his bank statements.

LES WISNER: 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: Wiser pushes for the team to set up complete surveillance on Ames. Where is he going? What he’s saying? Who is he meeting with?

LES WISNER: I wanted to come at Ames comprehensively, do a 360 around him.

NARRATOR: But Wiser knows he has to be careful.

LES WISNER: Remember, this was a very sophisticated subject. It wasn't like following your standard drug dealer. This man had been trained by the CIA to work in denied areas to look for counter-surveillance. And so, therefore, we used all the tools at our disposal to be as smart as we could about setting up our plan for surveillance. 

NARRATOR: Aldrich Ames had, after all, been trained at the Farm - the CIA facility that made agents experts in everything from running dead drops to parachuting out of a plane. Wiser remembered the case of Edward Lee Howard, another CIA agent who ended up spying for the Russians. The Bureau had put him under ‘bumper lock’ surveillance - 24-hour close observation - but it backfired catastrophically. Howard knew he was being watched. And, one night, while his wife was driving, he disappeared.

LES WISNER: The car went around the bend and he bailed out of the car.

NARRATOR: Howard’s wife immediately placed a dummy in the passenger seat. By the time the Bureau car tailing the couple had rounded the bend, it looked like Howard was still sitting there.

LES WISNER: His wife kept going. He escaped to Mexico and to the Soviet Union and lived in Russia for a long time. 

NARRATOR: Those who’d graduated from the Farm knew this trick as the Jack-in-the-Box. Concerned something similar could happen with Ames, Wiser and his team don’t go anywhere near the man himself. Instead, they study him forensically from afar.

LES WISNER: We're doing a background investigation knowing as much as we could about his personal life and his professional life, and used all the elements of the investigation to build a timeline, a chronology. And we went back as far as we could. We picked every record we could and tried to determine what he was doing on particular days. We supplemented that with our mail cover. The post office would photograph letters that came to him. So we looked at what was on the outside of the envelopes and used that to help us build a network. We tried to get a comprehensive picture, to know who our target was, and to understand him as best we could. 

NARRATOR: But it’s not enough. Wiser wants permission to install electronic surveillance of Ames.

LES WISNER: So that we could monitor telephone lines. I thought that was important. 

NARRATOR: And that wasn’t an easy thing to get. The Fourth Amendment of the US constitution protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure and means investigators need to secure a warrant before they can make their move.

LES WISNER: To get a court order for a wiretap or a microphone, you have to meet a Constitutional standard. You have to satisfy the Fourth Amendment. So it's not an everyday occurrence.

NARRATOR: But the CIA had a lot riding on the case. Whoever the mole was, he was responsible for the deaths of at least 10 people. And the CIA was convinced that the mole was Ames. Eventually, the most secretive court in America - the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court - grants Wiser the permission he needs. He could now tap Ames’ phone, bug his car, and place cameras outside his house. This is a delicate operation. You can’t just walk into someone's house, tap their phone, put up cameras on the exterior, and walk away. Well, most people can’t. And this is where you bring in the ‘tech agents’.

LES WISNER: Oh, love em!

NARRATOR: The FBI’s tech agents are experts. Not only in wiretapping and camera installation but also in looking... well, ordinary.

LES WISNER: They've got an array of vehicles that have markings on them and they can go out and pretend they're telephone or cable TV or whatever the case might be.

NARRATOR: Dressed as a cable guy, one of the tech agents secretly plants a camera on the telegraph pole outside Ames’ front door. 

LES WISNER: That would tell us when he left. We rented a house up the street that we could monitor that camera from so all of a sudden he just didn't come driving past you. 

NARRATOR: Meanwhile Wiser set up his core team at the Bureau’s Washington field office.

BRYAN DENSON: Which was a sh**hole.

NARRATOR: Bryan Denson. The investigative journalist who covered spies like Ames for decades.

BRYAN DENSON: Inside the FBI building, somebody found a dead mouse in a vending machine. It's, by all accounts, not a great, great place... Dangerous neighborhood. There are murders everywhere but those folks who work there, Les included, wound up doing some of the biggest investigations in US history in terms of espionage. 

NARRATOR: It was here that Les Wiser ran the operation against Ames, codenamed Nightmover. In the office, colleagues notice the growing size of Wiser’s team. 

LES WISNER: Other supervisors didn't know what we were doing, couldn't know, didn't understand. Would get mad at me about that because they wanted surveillance for their cases, too. I get it because I was tying up the capabilities of the Washington field office for quite a while. 

NARRATOR: Desperate to know exactly what he was working on, fellow agents would casually approach Les and his team to ask.

BRYAN DENSON: So he would say, “Yeah, we're working on the X-Files.” And so that was his standard, “Go screw yourself. I can't talk about it.

NARRATOR: From the outside, Wiser seemed cool, on top of his brief. But inside the Nightmover team, the pressure was mounting.

LES WISNER: You knew that people had died and I didn't want anybody else to die. So there's a lot of pressure and everybody felt it. 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. And that's a high bar. 

NARRATOR: Knowing he needs hard evidence of what Ames was up to, Wiser sends in the Bureau’s special surveillance group, better known as ‘the Gs’.

LES WISNER:  Physical surveillance. That was their thing. That's what they did. All about being able to be very good with a camera and to be able to follow people. They would wear disguises and such. They were like magicians. I called what they did magic. 

NARRATOR: Like tech agents, the Gs could blend into any situation. A pizza delivery man, a local jogger, a couple kissing on a park bench - and even an old woman struggling with her shopping. Anything that meant they could track a target without arousing suspicion. The Gs followed Ames wherever he went, folding in and out of traffic so as not to attract attention. But Wiser didn’t have the funding for round-the-clock surveillance. So, he instructed the Gs to follow Ames before and after he went to work. Specifically, they were told to check for patterns in his movement, odd changes to his routine - anything that could be interpreted as a signal. But the Gs came up with nothing, which meant Wiser had to come up with something more drastic. He and his team went to CIA headquarters and searched Ames’ desk, in the middle of the night.

LES WISNER:  We didn't want anybody else to know what we were doing. So we all had CIA badges and such. We went in twos and threes and installed a camera in the ceiling above his desk. We wanted to watch what he was doing.

NARRATOR: One of the team takes Polaroids of Ames’ desk. Then, one by one, they pick up all the documents and make copies. Studying the Polaroids, they place the papers down exactly as they were. Back in his office, Wiser examined the copies. One was a CIA report detailing how Russian submarines were evading detection by the US Navy. It was obvious to Wiser that Ames was planning to sell the information. But again, there was no smoking gun. As far as they could tell, Ames was living life as normal. The CIA officer who had initiated the Agency’s mole hunt gave Wiser some advice: if you want to catch a spy, you need to think like a spy. And in that advice, Wiser saw an opportunity. The Cold War was over. Ames had been a station chief at the CIA's Soviet East European Division in the '80s, but the Soviet Union didn’t exist anymore. Ames had a new job.

LES WISNER: He was working on the Black Sea Narcotics Initiative.

NARRATOR: As part of the initiative, Ames worked to break up the global heroin trade. It took him away from a lot of the sensitive information that he had profited from so handsomely. But there were partner countries to the initiative. And one of them was Russia.

LES WISNER: So we were somewhat concerned about that. 

NARRATOR: Wiser gets the head of the Narcotics Initiative, an officer called Dave Edger, ‘read in’ on the Ames case, meaning that he gained full knowledge of the investigation. As Ames’ boss, Edger was often in the same meetings as Ames. So Edger and Wiser came up with a plan. Edger would ask Ames to drive them both to a meeting at the FBI’s Washington field office, telling him his own car was in for repair. While Ames was upstairs, the Gs would hotwire the car, drive it to their garage, and install a tracking beacon.

LES WISNER: This is in 1993. This is before GPS. So this is just a simple tone that would sound off and the surveillance teams would use the tone to help find the car.

NARRATOR: The plan worked perfectly. When Ames returned to his car, it was as if nothing had happened. 

LES WISNER: This is about once again making sure that we had a good 360 around him.

NARRATOR: So let’s recap Wiser’s investigation so far. Car bugged? Phone bugged? Check. House surveilled? Check. Office bugged? Check. But, in spite of all this, Wiser still didn’t have the evidence he needed to smoke out his mole. So he did something he had been reticent to do up until now. He risked putting the Gs within a few yards of Ames himself.

LES WISNER: We did a trash cover. 

NARRATOR: A textbook FBI tactic, a ‘trash cover’ sees agents remove everything from a suspect’s bins. It may sound prosaic but think about it. Alongside the usual rubbish found in your trash can, there is often something telling. Letters, bank statements, receipts, scribbled notes. These can supercharge an investigation. But a trash cover is a risk. After all, seeing someone going through your rubbish is inevitably going to make you suspicious. And Wiser couldn’t afford for Ames to be suspicious. So he told the Gs to find an exact replica of Ames' trash can. Then, late at night, the Gs would pull up, replace the trash can with its replica, then drive off and examine the real one’s contents. Once they were done they’d simply come back and switch them again. Wiser’s boss, Bear Bryant, was concerned about the trash covers. It seemed too risky. Plus Ames was a chain smoker. By now they knew he often came outside late at night to smoke. Reluctantly, Bryant authorizes the trash covers. But after three of them, the Gs have come up with nothing. And then, on September 9, 1993, Les Wiser had one of the worst days of his career. The Nightmover team had intercepted a phone call early that morning between Ames and his wife Rosario. Rosario asked if he could take their son Paul to playschool. Ames agreed but added that he had an errand to do beforehand. Rosario asks: “One of those?” Ames replies: “Yes.” Wiser knew something was up and ordered the Gs to start physical surveillance on Ames at 0600 hours that day. But the message was misinterpreted. The Gs got there at 0630. 

LES WISNER: The instruction wasn't interpreted, as I thought was clear, but that's on me.

NARRATOR: By the time the Gs arrived, Ames had already been out and come back again.

LES WISNER: He left at 6:03 am and got back and about 6:26 am, I think, and we could see that. And that was not a good thing for us. So he'd gone out probably to make a signal.

NARRATOR: Once his bosses heard what had happened, they summoned Wiser to explain himself.

LES WISNER: So I was getting chewed out.

NARRATOR: Wiser knew he was close to getting thrown off the case - one of the biggest in US espionage history. He ordered the Gs to follow Ames once he left work that day. But then things got even worse.

LES WISNER: It's Murphy's Law that if things can go wrong, they will go wrong.

NARRATOR: The Gs followed Ames once he left CIA headquarters, settling in several rows back on the freeway. Suddenly Ames floored it. Knowing that giving pursuit would alert Ames, the Gs let him go. To make matters worse, the tracking beacon fitted to Ames’ car was proving unreliable. He had slipped the net again. Getting a little desperate, Wiser orders the Gs to pick up Ames’ tail back at his house. That evening they followed him to a parent's evening at his son Paul’s school. Once the meeting was over the Gs expected Ames would simply drive home but he didn’t.

LES WISNER: He went to a place in Washington, D.C. where he really didn't have any business being in his car, and he just sat there. 

NARRATOR: To Wiser, this was clearly a signal site. But what was the signal?

LES WISNER: In a big city, you're not sure which technique they're going to use and you're not sure when they're going to employ it and you're not sure where they're going to employ it. So it's not like you can just ride to the city and say, "Oh, that's a signal from an intelligence officer." We were looking for string or orange peels or a can or a chalk mark. And we didn't see anything. 

NARRATOR: After a minute or so, Ames drove his family home. The Nightmover team had no idea what he had done and with whom.

LES WISNER: So all in all, it was a tough day.

NARRATOR: Unbeknown to Wiser and his team at the time, Ames had just completed a dead drop right under their noses.

LES WISNER: So what had happened is, in the morning he had gone out and made a chalk mark on a mailbox.

NARRATOR: This signaled to his KGB handlers that a drop was imminent.

LES WISNER: And then in the afternoon, he took his documents and put them at a dead drop. 

NARRATOR: The Russians then went to the site of the drop and picked up the documents. Then, crucially, they wiped off the innocuous chalk mark Ames had made on a mailbox that morning.

LES WISNER: That was the signal that they had picked up the documents because he needed to know that those documents weren't laying out there, that some third party might come along accidentally and find them, as he would be vulnerable.

NARRATOR: It was not surprising that the Gs didn’t notice a sign that evening. There wasn’t one.

LES WISNER: We were looking for something and saw nothing. He was looking for nothing, that is the absence of the chalk mark, and saw something. That was a pretty good move on their part, to be honest with you. 

NARRATOR: As a new supervising officer on the toughest case of his life, Wiser needed a break. And fast. Secretly, he told the Gs to do one more trash cover, directly disobeying his boss, Bear Bryant. At 2:30 am on September 13, the Gs pulled up alongside Ames’ house and pulled one last trash cover. Bringing the can back to an FBI warehouse nearby, they got to work rifling through its contents. After about 20 minutes, one of the Special Agents present spotted a small yellow scrap of paper. Examining it further, the Agent could see it was a torn piece of a post-it note. On it was written ‘meet at’. The team looked for other torn pieces of yellow paper. Eventually, they had enough of them to piece together several words. They read: “I am ready to meet at B on 1 Oct.” BINGO. Dell Spry, an experienced counterintelligence agent from the Southern US, called Wiser and told him to get down to the warehouse.

BRYAN DENSON: So he had this accent. And when Les walked in to have a look at the note that they'd pieced together, Dell looked at him and said "That there’s a spyyy note!"

NARRATOR: After studying the note further, the Nightmover team deduced that 'B' meant Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia - and Ames’ wife Rosario’s hometown. Wiser now had hard evidence to act on.

LES WISNER: I thought that was a huge break for us. It was good evidence that was just in the nick of time for us, I think.

NARRATOR: All thanks to ignoring his boss’ orders.

BRYAN DENSON: That little piece of paper and that little crazy act of insubordination, I think, turn that case into, ultimately, the monster.

NARRATOR: Wiser tells his boss Bear Bryant about the note. Instead of rebuking him for not following orders, he’s impressed. Later, he said that it was a marvelous piece of insubordination. 

BRYAN DENSON: So the FBI ultimately sent a team down to Bogota to catch Ames in a covert meeting with his handler.

NARRATOR: Wiser assembled a crew of 15 agents and made the 2,500-mile trip down to Bogotá. But almost as soon as they arrive, they get a phone call.

LES WISNER: The meeting was canceled. It was very clear he wasn't going.

NARRATOR: Downbeat, the team flies back to D.C. But soon, they have some good news. The evidence they have collected so far has tipped the scales. The US Deputy Attorney General has granted them permission to go into Ames’ house. Listening in on his calls with Rosario, the team spotted the perfect time to make an entry. The family was about to fly to Florida for Ames’ nephew’s wedding. Immediately, the Nightmover team gets to work. A technical agent creeps up to the cellar door of Ames’ house one night and takes a mold of the lock. From this, they cut a replica of its key, providing a clean entry. Then, on the night of October 6, they go in. One team plants hidden microphones in every room. Another goes through every drawer, cupboard, and wardrobe in the house, taking pictures of any note they could find. Meanwhile one of the tech agents makes copies of everything on Ames’s hard drive. Once back at the warehouse, Wiser inspects the evidence. On a crumpled shred of the Washington Times newspaper, he spots small writing. Reading it aloud, he says: “Are ready to meet at a city well known to you on Nov. 1.”

LES WISNER: It was a note that he had picked up from the Russians that told him.

NARRATOR: Deducing that the Bogotá meeting was back on, Wiser wastes no time.

LES WISNER: We just had to go. I went and found a bunch of Spanish speakers that would go with us and would be comfortable there. And so went down there. 

NARRATOR: But they have to go undercover.

LES WISNER: Because this was not coordinated with the Colombian government because we just couldn't take the risk that they had been penetrated by the Russians. 

NARRATOR: So, Wiser and his team have to pose as tourists. No weapons, no backup.

LES WISNER: Probably wouldn't do that again because we were there without a net.

NARRATOR: And in 1993, Bogota was even more dangerous than usual. But for a very different reason.

LES WISNER: There was this fellow named Pablo Escobar running around Colombia. And during the early '93, he was blowing things up, setting off bombs in and around Colombia, including in Bogota. So we were well aware that there was violence in Bogota. It was a dangerous place. 

NARRATOR: What Wiser’s team did bring with them was cameras. Plenty of them. And not the usual sort either.

BRYAN DENSON: There was a female FBI agent. She had a camera that was built into a briefcase. 

NARRATOR: The Nightmover team knew that if they could snap Ames with his KGB handler, then the game was up. They’d have enough to arrest him. But while they knew both the date of the meeting and the city, that wasn’t exactly exhaustive information.

LES WISNER: We didn't know where in the whole city of Bogota - a city I think at that time, about 8 million people - we didn’t know where this meeting was going to be. And it's not like we had the resources of the Colombian government. 

NARRATOR: Wiser asks the most experienced spycatchers on his team point blank, "Where do you think this will happen?"

LES WISNER: Jim Milburn from our team was an analyst, just brilliant, and he said, "I think it will happen at the Unicentral Mall. There's a bowling alley there. Bolicentro." I said, "How did you come up with that?" And he'd been in the stacks with case files. These were paper case files back then. And he explained it to me, and I think it went over my head and I said, "Okay, well, give me five other places, too, just in case you're wrong." 

NARRATOR: The team covers five spots across the city they think are most likely for the meet. In the early evening of November 1st, they spot Ames walking casually through the central shopping mall past the bowling alley.

LES WISNER: And so we had it on film. He was at the Bolicentro. And he left.

NARRATOR: But Ames hadn’t met with anyone.

LES WISNER: So looking back, as we look at these notes, you could see the handwriting was not good and he couldn't read his handwriting. He interpreted it as the wrong time. He misread his notes. And so he went in an hour ahead of the meeting where he was supposed to be.

NARRATOR: Back at the hotel, Wiser listens in on a phone call between Ames and Rosario.

LES WISNER: And said that they already met and she asked him if he was lying and he said no.

NARRATOR: Now the Nightmover team was confused. They had followed Ames throughout his time at the mall. He had met with no one. What Wiser didn’t know at the time was why Ames had really told Rosario the meet had happened.

LES WISNER: He wouldn't admit to her because she wanted that money. And he didn't want to tell her that he messed up, which is just kind of funny when you think about it. 

NARRATOR: But there was something else Wiser didn’t know. Ames had a backup plan for another meeting. And so, the next day, he saw his KGB handler face to face. Unnoticed.

LES WISNER: It's a comedy of errors. And you just look back and you just say, "Wow." So we tried some other things as he went back home. We searched his luggage in Bogota to see if he'd put the money in there. And he hadn’t, he put it in his carry-on and we couldn't get to that. He did take coffee home, though. So he got back to Washington, D.C. and we were a bit deflated. 

NARRATOR: Not long after, back in D.C., someone plays Wiser, another call between Ames and Rosario. Mostly they exchanged idle chit-chat. But then Ames says bluntly, “They’re holding $1.9 million for me in Moscow.” Finally, Wiser now knew they were dealing with perhaps the most prolific turncoat in US history. But there was even more money than he thought - over $4 million in total.

BRYAN DENSON: The Russians, I've heard they're notoriously cheap about how much they pay their spies. And the $4 million-plus that was promised or paid to Ames is extremely high. And so he was a very high-value spy for them.

NARRATOR: Anxious to get the case tied up, Wiser instructs his team to check Ames’ CIA office again. There they find several stacks of floppy discs stacked high on Ames’ desk.

LES WISNER: We copied them and we printed them out and there was a stack of them that were classified at the secret- and top-secret level. So it was serious. We could not let those disks go.

NARRATOR: Then Wiser hears some troubling news. Ames is scheduled to go on official agency business to Moscow.

LES WISNER: I would never let that happen so we had to come up with a plan on how to close this thing out.

NARRATOR: Wiser details the case against Ames in a 35-page affidavit.

LES WISNER: So I went with the lead prosecutor to meet with the magistrate. 

NARRATOR: And some more evidence had just come through. Separately, the Nightmover team had taken a picture of a man they later prove to be Ames’ KGB handler at the Colombian shopping mall. Matching the photo with their records, they knew it was him.

LES WISNER: That was good because we could put them both in the same area. We thought that would be pretty effective in court.

NARRATOR: And nearly a year into his investigation, on February 21, 1994, Wiser finally hears the words he’d been hoping to hear.

LES WISNER: The magistrate judge issued both an arrest warrant and a search warrant for his residence.

NARRATOR: Racing back to his car, Wiser radios all units.

LES WISNER: To execute the plan. 

NARRATOR: One team follows Ames as he drives to work. Another approaches him head-on. At a red light, they box him in.

LES WISNER: And so he was arrested in his car.

NARRATOR: Meanwhile, Rosario opens her front door to see two FBI Special Agents presenting her with a warrant for her arrest. Stepping past Rosario, another group of agents begins a full search of the house. And one of them finds exactly what they were looking for.

LES WISNER: There was an envelope in the office and the envelope had marked ‘destroy’ on it. 

NARRATOR: Within the envelope is a bank statement of all the money paid to Ames over nine years. It was the smoking gun Wiser and his team had hoped for from the start. In the Bureau car en route to the station, Ames was now shouting at his arresting officers, telling him this was clearly some mistake. That they were putting their careers in jeopardy. But at the house, Rosario was already giving up their secrets.

LES WISNER: I wanted him and his wife separated. Rosario was held separately at the house and we had a very effective interview. We had a man and a woman, both Special Agents, interview her and that turned out to be very helpful. Our calculation was that if we had a solid case against his wife that would put pressure on him. 

NARRATOR: Ames’ arrest is splashed across every newspaper in the country. Wiser’s investigation is headline news.

LES WISNER: And it's interesting because, in the newspapers and such, people wrote and painted her rather darkly as maybe the brains behind the operation. And she learned about it after he had already started so she wasn't the instigator on it.

NARRATOR: Shortly after, Wiser meets with Ames. He asks him why he didn’t destroy the envelope.

LES WISNER: And he said, "You just compartment things in your mind." You really don't want to think about getting caught because he always knew that was a possibility. But it was such a... I mean, that would be such a devastating thing to happen to him. He really didn't even want to go there. 

NARRATOR: Then he tells him that Rosario is likely to get an 11-year sentence.

LES WISNER: That was an emphasis to put leverage on him. And so he wanted to get the best deal he could for her. So there was a negotiation.

NARRATOR: Rosario receives a lesser sentence of five years and three months.

LES WISNER: And in return, he agreed to plead guilty to the highest penalty that was available under the law. Life in prison without the possibility of parole. Pretty remarkable, actually. 

NARRATOR: Ames also agrees to be debriefed - interviewed about what exactly he shared with the Russians and why he did it. The debriefers ask Ames what he thought of all the people that had been killed because of him. But Ames shrugs off the question.

LES WISNER: He wasn't remorseful. He used a term - everybody knew what they were doing. Folks on the other side who lost their lives. And he did too. So an interesting character. I mean he didn't cry over it.

NARRATOR: Aside from the money, Bryan Denson thinks there’s another reason Ames gave an answer like that.

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... As a journalist, I'm a paid worrier. Right? And so I would never do it because I'd be so fearful of it.

NARRATOR: To this day, Ames is in a high-security prison in Indiana. He’s still responsible for more deaths of US agents than any other turncoat in US history. But for FBI Special agent Leslie G. Wiser Jr., the day of the sentencing was almost like any other day in the life of a spycatcher.

LES WISNER: I was literally standing in the lobby of the courthouse where I gave instructions about the opening on the next case because I was getting information throughout that day. We had another matter to work on. And I, literally, was standing in the courthouse. So we didn't miss a beat. We just moved on to the next thing.

NARRATOR: A true spy’s work is never done. I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next week for the story of a daring heist in 1970's Cairo. Or subscribe to *SPYSCAPE Plus* to listen right now. Sign up for early access and bonus content on Apple Podcasts.

Guest Bio

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.

No items found.
No items found.