THE 1980s were the ``get mine'' decade for baby boomers on Wall Street, in business, and in the professions. If greed was to be the highest loyalty, then why not for spies as well?
During the cold war, America was periodically rocked by the revelation of someone who had betrayed secrets out of some ideological commitment. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed 40 years ago for transferring nuclear-weapons secrets to the Russians in the hope that this would help to preserve peace. The Kim Philby-Burgess-MacLean spy ring and Alger Hiss had to do with Communist sympathies.
But not Aldrich Hazen Ames, the CIA counterintelligence officer, alleged to have sold out vital secrets and the lives of 10 Russian spies for America for what may be a record mess of potage - an estimated million and a half dollars that enabled him to buy a $540,000 house for cash, keep a $40,000 Jaguar in his driveway and run up $30,000 in telephone bills in three years.
Mr. Ames belongs to the secrets-for-cash class of '85, the year he was allegedly recruited. Other members of the class:
* John A. Walker Jr., retired Navy warrant officer, who - along with his son, brother, and another Navy retiree - was convicted of selling Navy secrets to the Russians. After his conviction, Mr. Walker told his daughter he hoped to make a million dollars or more in book royalties. (We haven't seen the book yet.)
* Ronald Pelton, who has been a communications specialist for the National Security Agency, convicted of selling secrets to the Russians.
* Jonathan Pollard, a civilian employee of the Naval Intelligence Service, convicted of spying for Israel. While he testified that he did it to provide information crucial for Israel's survival, evidence indicated that he also got $2,500 a month, $305,000 in a secret bank account, and a $7,000 ring for his wife.
* And Edward Lee Howard, the former CIA Soviet desk officer who betrayed intelligence operations in Moscow to the Soviets. He managed to elude FBI surveillance and defect to the USSR. His file, studied too late, indicated that when tripped up by lie-detector tests, he admitted to using alcohol and drugs and stealing money from vending machines and from a woman's purse aboard an airliner.
All of the cases but Ames's were broken in 1985, which became known as the Year of the Spy - each one ready to betray his country for no higher principle than greed.
One other connection between the cloak-and-dagger baby boomers remains to be investigated. Howard was exposed to the CIA in 1985 by a KGB defector, Vitaly Yurchenko. Ames, as a counterintelligence officer, participated in debriefing Mr. Yurchenko. Ames was thus in a position to warn his Soviet patrons or Howard himself that he was in danger of arrest, perhaps helping him elude the FBI.
Griffin Bell, attorney general in the Carter administration, has said that among the many spy cases he had to review, not one was an ideological recruit.
What a commentary on the ``me generation'' ... ready to reap profit at the expense of customers, investors, friendships, and, in the end, at the expense of their country. Spies not for conscience, but for cash. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.