Circle of Treason

Title:                      Circle of Treason

Author:                  Sandra Grimes

Grimes, Sandra (2012) and Jeanne Vertefeuille. Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press

LCCN:    2012024310

JK468.I6 G755 2012


Date Updated:  November 23, 2015

This review is by David E. Hoffman.[1]

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. Some thought it was a communications breach; others thought a mole was giving away the store.

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’s work area to welcome her, he began a lecture on the basic tenets of conducting 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 firsthand 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 in the GRU (Soviet military intelligence), the highest-ranking Soviet official in uniform to spy for the United States during the Cold War, who 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 over the years, some of which raised eyebrows. His wife, Rosario, 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 authors do not spill all the beans. The book has been 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 to the bookshelf but is probably not the last word on the Ames case.

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[2]

In the summer of 1992, CIA counterintelligenceanalyst Sandra “Sandy” Grimes burst into the office of her boss, Paul Redmond, and exclaimed, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell what is going on here … Rick [Ames] is a Russian spy!”

Thus came the major break in a mystery that had bedeviled the CIA for years: Why were so many of its agents in the USSR being compromised to the KGB and executed? The arrests cut out the heart of the Agency’s spy efforts in the USSR.

Mrs. Grimes was part of a counterintelligence team working on the problem. Aldrich “Rick” Ames, an Agency officer since 1967, chiefly on Soviet matters, was one of several individuals under suspicion, chiefly because of the “extremely large sums of money” he was spending, both on a new home, a sports car, and high-living with a spendthrift wife. (Ames spoke vaguely of his wife’s “inheritance,” a claim that could not be verified because wills were not open to outsiders in her native Colombia.)

Although he held some important assignments in the Clandestine Service branches dealing with the USSR, Ames was considered a so-so officer. He was unkempt in personal appearance, drank a bit more than was considered the norm, and his performance in various postings was uneven. Superiors chided him often about tardiness with his reports; if a particular assignment did not interest him, he tended to give it short shrift.

In her investigation, Mrs. Grimes laid out a chronology of the betrayals and Ames’ activities, while a colleague, Dan Payne, pored over Ames’ bank records and other financial data. Once she correlated the financial data with her chronology, she had what she would later call “an epiphany.”

CIA tradecraft encouraged officers who worked on Soviet affairs—such as Ames— to make “sanctioned contacts” with people at the Soviet Embassy, with the hope they might cultivate them to the point where they would reveal important information. Such contacts supposedly were reported in advance to the FBI to explain why a CIA officer was making such contacts.

Ames had dutifully reported some—but by no means all—of the lunches and other meetings he had with Sergey Dmitriyevich Chuvakhin, ostensibly an arms-control specialist. Sandy Grimes immediately spotted the correlations that sent her racing into Redmond’s office:

  • May 17, 1985: Ames lunches with Chuvakhin.
  • May 18, 1985: Ames deposits $9,000.
  • July 2, 1985: Ames lunches with Chuvakhin.
  • July 5, 1985; Ames deposits $5,000.
  • July 31, 1985: Ames lunches with Chuvakhin.
  • July 31, 1985: Ames deposits $8,500.

Mr. Payne’s financial analysis eventually would document that from 1985 to 1991, Ames had income of $1,326,310 from unidentified sources. The case was by no means over, and just how the CIA and the FBI worked together to put Ames behind bars for life makes for the most gripping insider account of a counterintelligence operation you are ever apt to read. Mrs. Grimes, a 26-year CIA veteran, co-authored the book with her friend Jeanne Vertefeuille, who joined the CIA as a GS-4 typist in 1954 and worked her way through the Clandestine Service to become a station chief She “retired” in 1992, but continued as a contract officer until her death on December 29, 2012, ending a 58-year career.

Aside from his sloppy tradecraft in handling money, Ames had another fault—a low regard for women. He had known Mrs. Grimes for years—they carpooled together at one point—but during interviews with her and Ms. Vertefeuille, he made plain that “he thought he was smarter than we were” and that he “viewed us as two dumb broads.” He was wrong, fatally so.

The KGB, of course, was fully aware of the CIA’s intense “mole hunt,” most likely on the basis of Ames’ reports. So the Soviets floated several explanations for the breaches that seemed plausible on their face—that CIA communications were flawed, or that “an officer with a Russian name” was the source. These ploys were ultimately recognized as attempts at disinformation.

Much of Circle of Treason is devoted to the recruited agents betrayed by Ames, and the important information they gave to the CIA during the years when the Cold War was still serious. That most of these individuals were summarily executed emphasizes the odious nature of Ames’ conduct.

The authors state candidly that they are not telling a complete story. “When it comes to information we believe the opposition does not know or that could prove harmful to certain individuals, we have suppressed it in our book even though it would add useful background to our story.”

The book also marks an attempt by the CIA to point up its major role in the detection of Ames—something for which the publicity-conscious FBI was quite happy to present as its own success after his arrest. Several earlier books on the Ames case were heavily FBI-centric, particularly David Wise’s 1995 work Nightmover.[3]

All in all, Circle of Treason is a disturbing read, but essential for anyone interested in the intricate detail work involved in a counterintelligence investigation—and a tribute to two women who helped push it to a conclusion.

[1] David E. Hoffman, The Washington Post (November 30, 2012).

[2] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 87-89) Joseph C. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times and other publications. Most of the reviews [from The Intelligencer, reproduced in this blog] appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times. Joe Goulden’s recent book is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications

[3] Wise, David (1995). Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million. New York: HarperCollins


This entry was posted in Defectors and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s