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Ames Spy Case: Don't Blame the Russians

Given the chance, the US would have paid handsomely to get similar undercover information on Moscow's doings

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THE arrest of Aldrich Ames on charges of spying for Russia has set off complaints, including some from people who ought to know better, about Russian perfidy in post-cold-war euphoria and glasnost.

The complaints are misdirected. We have plenty of reason to be upset, but not at the Russians. The appropriate focus is on Mr. Ames and his wife, Maria del Rosario Casas Ames, who has been charged with him.

Let it be said up front that discussion of this case must respect the ancient principle that the Ameses are considered innocent until proven guilty, with the proof strong enough to convince a jury of their peers beyond a reasonable doubt. That is a degree of protection they would not have in many other countries and certainly not in Russia, even in post-communist Russia. We also should keep in mind that the Federal Bureau of Investigation saying something is so does not make it so; the FBI has been known to exaggerate. But if even a little of what the FBI says about the Ameses ultimately proves true, this is mind-boggling espionage.

The salient fact about the case is that it involves an American (Mr. Ames allegedly was the principal actor) spying against the United States. We do not yet know whether the Russians recruited Ames or whether he volunteered his services. It doesn't matter. Nobody forced him into whatever relationship he allegedly had with the Russians; the evidence points to greed as the motive (he supposedly got more than $2.5 million over eight or nine years). Even if he had been blackmailed, a CIA officer with Ames's experience certainly knew that the agency has effective ways to protect its employees from blackmail and is happy to do so. So whatever Ames did, he did freely.

And if the FBI is even close to correct, what he did was betray his country.

What did the Russians do? They paid Ames for the information he is charged with bringing them. It was valuable (they certainly paid enough for it) on two counts: It told them which Russians were untrustworthy, and it told them what else Americans were trying to do to them.

Given a chance, the CIA would certainly pay a Russian intelligence officer handsomely for the same information. It also would pay a similarly situated informant in almost any other country. Indeed, it has done so, though it may not have reaped the same rich harvest that the Russians apparently got.

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