LAST month's arrest of Aldrich and Maria Ames for alleged spying for Russia has shown more about US attitudes toward intelligence activities than it has about the activities themselves. To much of the world, aspects of the US reaction must seem unreasonable, even bizarre.
Americans are ambivalent on the subject of espionage. Many consider it immoral. Friends do not spy on friends, although the case of Jonathan Pollard's spying for Israel suggests there are exceptions. Yet some of those, especially in Congress, who criticize the act of espionage, would be among the first to condemn the US intelligence community if it failed to have sufficient information on a major international development, whether in friendly or unfriendly territory.
The uproar over the Ames case ignored that the Russians, in their enlistment of Ames, hoped to roll back American spying in Russia. Evidence clearly suggests they were paying unusually large sums of money to learn the identity of Russians working for the US. It is difficult to argue that such counterintelligence activity is not a legitimate function of a state. Yet Americans seem to believe that espionage against Russia is justified and that it is an unfriendly act for Russia to arrest US spies.
The US public and Congress immediately suggested that Russia should cease spying as a condition for receiving assistance. Not only does this argument ignore potential US benefits from Russian reform, but it also introduces the idea that foreign assistance should be used to indemnify against spying. In the talks with Russia on the dismantling of nuclear weapons, would the US have ceased all intelligence activities in Moscow as the price of agreement?
The US also sent CIA officials to seek Russian help in the Ames investigation. They were rebuffed. This, too, was seen as an unfriendly act; yet how would the US have reacted to a Russian request for US assistance in the investigation of a Russian charged with spying for Washington?