When we talk about spies, images of famous fictional representations that range from the exciting and debonair world of James Bond to the goofy but inventive Get Smart,tend to take precedence in our minds over actual cases of espionage. As far as fictional, glamorized professions go, spying is arguably one with the largest gap between the fiction and the reality. The sexy and exciting Hollywood version of spies has little to do with the very serious business of treason.
Seen by governments worldwide as one of the gravest offenses a person can commit, the consequences for treason are dire. At best you’d get prison and the long-term destruction of your reputation, at worst you’d face execution. Considering the risks, what on earth would drive someone to treason? The story of Aldrich Ames shows us one version of how a spy evolves.
Who Was Aldrich Ames?
The son of a CIA agent and a teacher, Aldrich Ames started working for the CIA in high school. His father’s position made it easy for him to land a job in a summer program with the agency when he was 16. After an unsuccessful go at the University of Chicago, he dropped out and made his way back to the CIA, with his father’s help.
For much of his tenure in the CIA, Ames was not great at his job. He was sent on several missions in various countries to recruit new spies and came back each time a failure. Nonetheless, little by little, he managed to move up in the agency into positions that brought him into contact with valuable classified information. This didn’t stop him from harboring bitterness that he’d been passed over for promotions several times in his years with the department.
On one of his (failed) missions to recruit new spies, he was sent to Mexico City. His time in Mexico brought experiences that played a key role in his eventual move to betray the United States. Most notably:
- He was exposed to some of the United States’ Cold War activities in Latin America. He found the government’s interference with revolutionary movements in the area, like the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, overly aggressive and immoral.
- He met Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy.
How The Betrayal Began
Although he was married when he left for Mexico City, Ames’ marriage wasn’t going well and he quickly fell for Rosario. Not long after he returned to the States, she followed him there and he officially ended his marriage. His divorce left him with little, and Rosario’s extravagant spending habits went far beyond the salary he was making at the CIA.
As his debt grew, he recalled hearing about a colleague who’d been offered a lot of money for selling information to the CIA. In 1984, he met with a Russian contact and passed along his note offering to reveal CIA double agents to the Russian government for $50,000.
This started a 9-year relationship that garnered Ames nearly $2 million, and caused the deaths of at least 10 CIA agents working in Russia. As many of these executions happened in a short span of time in 1985, many in the CIA and FBI had their suspicions about a mole. At the time though, others were suspected and Ames stayed under the radar.
The Capture of a Cold War Spy
What really strikes one about the Ames case in retrospect is not how the CIA eventually caught him, but how much luck was on Ames side for him to avoid capture for as long as he did.
Ames and Rosario spent lavishly. He drove a Jaguar. They bought a house with cash that should have been far outside their means. She spent without concern on clothes, shoes, and anything that took her fancy. None of that aroused suspicion at the agency.
Oddly enough, the expense that finally raised the right flags was drapes. Rosario called a friend over to help her choose the drapes for her home and casually spoke of re-doing the drapes in the entire house. Unfortunately for her, this friend not only had an idea of just how expensive drapes were, but also happened to know one of the members on the task force looking into the 1985 executions in the hopes of identifying the mole.
Even after suspicion was clearly cast in his direction, Ames had several more lucky breaks slowing down his capture. At one point, when the FBI planned to follow him to catch him in the process of a drop, he left his home abnormally early and thwarted them in the process. They managed to finally find the evidence they needed by digging through his trash, where a telling note was discovered. A raid on the house turned up documents on his computer that told enough of the rest of the story to justify his arrest.
Ames has been in prison since his arrest in 1994. Officials found enough evidence to determine that Rosario knew about and encouraged her husband’s spying activities, earning her a 6-year sentence as well. Rosario was deported back to Colombia upon her release, and Ames remains in prison to this day.