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Book facts
Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed
by Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille
(Naval Institute)
228 pages, $29.95

Insiders offer tale of hunt for mole

In late May 1991, a small group of CIA and FBI officials began to take a second look at a mystery known in intelligence circles as “the 1985 events.” That year, most of the CIA’s most valued assets in the Soviet Union were compromised, but the reason was still unknown. Sandra Grimes, one of the co-authors of “Circle of Treason,” was just getting settled in on her first day of work with the group when she was approached by a CIA veteran, a man once regarded by co-workers as absent-minded and ill-dressed, but who now exuded confidence and wore expensive suits. Walking into Grimes’ work area, he began a lecture on the basic tenets of a counterintelligence investigation and offered his assistance.

The man was Aldrich Ames, the CIA mole who had been spying for the KGB for six years. Grimes didn’t know it then, but she came to suspect Ames as the investigation went on. When the group was scrutinizing lists of people for who might be the mole, their choices in an informal straw poll were weighted by points. Of everyone on their list, Ames got the highest score as the most likely candidate. Eventually, the FBI opened a full investigation, Ames was arrested in 1994, pleaded guilty and is now serving a life term in prison. His motivation appears to have been simple greed.

What makes this volume interesting is that it was written by longtime CIA insiders, who saw at first hand how the agency’s network inside the Soviet Union crumbled. They write authentic sketches of agents working for the CIA who were betrayed by Ames, such as Dmitriy Polyakov, a general and the highest-ranking Soviet official in uniform to spy for the United States during the Cold War. He was arrested and executed after Ames identified him. The book is dedicated to Polyakov.

As insiders, the authors and their colleagues had casual brushes with Ames, some of which raised eyebrows. His wife sent lavish gifts to a CIA official. When Ames was asked a hypothetical question about espionage during an interview in the early stage of the probe, his self-confidence evaporated, and he seemed to fumble.

The book was cleared before publication by the CIA. While the people Ames betrayed are discussed, the massive damage he caused – a disaster for the CIA – is not addressed in much detail. The long years of investigating a CIA mole evidently left lingering resentments. The authors have plenty of axes to grind. They were so angry about who got which medals for working on the case that they boycotted the award ceremony. This book adds an insider perspective but is probably not the last word on the Ames case.

David E. Hoffman wrote this review for Washington Post Book World.