By Jennifer Young

One of the most notorious double agents in modern times is serving time in a Federal Correctional Institution in Terre Haute, Indiana. Aldrich Ames was a CIA officer of 31 years before he was arrested on espionage charges in 1994 and convicted for spying for the Russian KGB. Ames, currently aged 78, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. His wife was also implicated in his crimes and served 63 months in prison before her release.

Why did this American son of a college professor / CIA officer and English teacher play turncoat? A pile of debts suggests it was all about the money.

Ames was born in River Falls, Wisconsin, which is located near the state border with Minnesota. His father took a job with the CIA when Ames was a teen, and he, himself, found work with the agency during summers where he performed clerical work and low-ranking records analysis. Ames entered the University of Chicago to study foreign cultures, but he was dispassionate and his failing grades forced him to drop out. He returned East and took a full-time job with the CIA, performing much the same work as previously.

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Eventually, Ames completed a bachelor’s degree and though he did not intend to pursue a CIA career, he achieved a grade of GS-7 and enough praise for his performance that he decided to enter the agency’s Career Trainee Program. Eventually, the young officer was stationed in Ankara, Turkey, and tasked to spy on the Soviets. He returned to the U.S. in 1972 and continued to work with Soviet-related issues. He handled important Soviet assets and began to increase his rank.

However, Ames was not a model officer. He routinely received poor performance reviews because of his heavy drinking. He engaged in extramarital affairs, something the agency frowned upon, particularly since his first wife was also a CIA officer. While stationed for a time in Mexico City, Ames engaged in an affair with a Columbian Embassy attache, Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy (called Rosario), the woman who would become his second wife and partner in espionage.

According to reports from the FBI and CIA, Ames began piling up debt at the time of his second marriage. To satisfy those debts, Ames, who spoke fluent Russian, volunteered to KGB officers at the USSR Embassy in D.C. in 1985 for a sum of $50,000. He passed on classified information about CIA and FBI assets and informants. Once he began to pass this information, he knew that there was no way to turn back. So, fueled by Soviet funding, he trudged forward.

The result of Ames’s treachery led to the arrest and execution of several Russian officials who had been secretly working for the CIA and FBI. Before the arrest of Robert Hanssen in 2001, Ames had compromised more highly placed assets with the CIA than any other officer in the history of the CIA or FBI. These agencies recognized that they had a potential mole in their midst but they didn’t readily suspect Ames.

What gave the spy away was his flimsy cover story about his new-found wealth. It was obvious to many that the couple was living a lifestyle beyond their pay grade. They told people that they received an inheritance from Rosario’s family in Columbia. However, a CIA officer who was familiar with Rosario’s family and knew her parents had little money was just one of several agency officials who began to evaluate Ames as a possible double agent.

Though the investigation took time, investigators didn’t have to look hard to note that Ames paid $540,000 in cash for their Arlington, VA, home. Ames paid $50,000 for his Jaguar. The couple spent $99,000 to decorate and remodel their home. Within the first four years that Ames spied for the Russians, he was paid more than a million dollars, but his role as a double agent lasted nearly a decade. When their home was eventually raided, investigators counted more than 500 pairs of women’s shoes and tailor-made men’s suits in the couple’s closets.

All told, the enterprising Ames netted more than $4.6 million from the Russians. Had they have been able to keep their wealth on the down low, they may never have been caught. But fellow officers commented on Ames’s sharper appearance and his well-made suits. As soon as the agency uncovered that the monthly balances due on his credit cards exceeded his monthly salary, they knew to keep digging.

If you’re interested to learn more about Ames, the officials and agents he compromised, the dead drops he and the KGB used to pass along information, consider reading The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben McIntyre.