In the 1980s Aldrich Ames, a CIA agent, supplied the Soviets with significant numbers of classified American intelligence files – and it was not until after the Cold War finished that he was caught. But Ames was not influenced by ideology – it was something else. Scott Rose explains this Cold War spy scandal.

You can read past articles in the series about spies who shared American atomic secrets with the Soviet Union (read more here), and the 1950s “Red Scare” (read more here).

Aldrich Ames on the day of his arrest.

Aldrich Ames on the day of his arrest.

During the waning years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union received and paid for intelligence from one of the most notorious traitors in American history. Unlike previous American spies who betrayed their country because of communist ideologies, Aldrich Ames did so for another reason: he needed the money. 

The most ironic component of this case was that Ames was a 25-year veteran of the CIA, working in counterintelligence. His activities led to the executions of several Soviets who were working for the United States, and the resignation of a CIA Director. The effect Aldrich Ames had on the American intelligence community was nothing short of devastating.


The Agent’s Son

Born in Wisconsin in 1941, Aldrich “Rick” Ames was the son of Carleton Ames, a college professor, and Rachel Ames, an English teacher at the local high school. In 1952, Carleton went to work for the CIA, and was stationed in Southeast Asia. At that time, the region was a Cold War hotspot, as the communists had taken power in mainland China and Ho Chi Minh’s communist rebels were fighting the French for control of Vietnam. Not far away, American forces were engaged in the bloody conflict in Korea.

Carleton Ames had brought his wife and children to Asia along with him, but the family would not live abroad for very long. Carleton was an alcoholic, and his performance was negatively affected. The CIA called him back to the United States, and the elder Ames would spend the rest of his career at the Agency headquarters at Langley, Virginia, in the suburbs of Washington.

Aldrich Ames used his father’s connections to land a summer job at the CIA in 1957, and returned the next two summers. He worked as a records analyst, filing documents and performing various office tasks. Ames graduated from high school in 1959, and was accepted to the prestigious University of Chicago. However, he didn’t adjust well to life away from home, and his grades were poor. By the middle of his sophomore year, he was in danger of flunking out of school, so he dropped out and returned to his family. He regained employment at the CIA, working at office duties once again. While working at the Agency, Ames resumed his education, this time at George Washington University. At the age of 26, Ames graduated with a degree in history, and was accepted into the Career Trainee Program at the CIA. He received positive appraisals in the program, and had a blossoming romance with another agent-in-training named Nancy Segebarth. In 1969, Aldrich and Nancy were married, and he received his first assignment, in Turkey. At the age of 28, he was one of the CIA’s youngest agents; in all respects, his future seemed bright.


Assignments Around the World

Once Ames and his new wife settled in Ankara, Nancy resigned from the Agency, as the CIA had a rule that married couples weren’t allowed to work from the same office. Ames was given the task of recruiting agents to spy on the Revolutionary Youth Federation, a Marxist group in Turkey. While he was moderately successful, the CIA rated Ames’ job performance as “satisfactory,” and he was so dismayed by the evaluation that he nearly quit the CIA. After three years in Turkey, Ames was recalled to Washington and assigned to the Soviet-East European division. His new task was to recruit informants among workers at the Soviet embassy.

Ames was not very effective at recruiting Soviet spies in Washington, but was praised by his superiors for his management and planning skills. The CIA was concerned that Ames was drinking excessively, and noted this on his file in the mid-1970s. However, the Agency felt that given the right situation, Ames would flourish. He was sent to New York in 1976 to manage two established Soviet informants, and did the job well. Ames received promotions in rank and pay increases, but at times, he made careless mistakes that could have become disasters. Once he even forgot his briefcase, which was carrying classified documents, while traveling on the New York subway. Instead of firing or demoting him, the CIA merely gave Ames a verbal warning.

He was transferred again in 1981, this time to Mexico City. His wife remained in New York, and Ames had several affairs with women in Mexico. He met a lady named Maria del Rosario Casas Dupuy in 1982. Maria, a Colombian national, worked as an attaché at the Colombian Embassy, and Ames managed to recruit her as a confidential informant for the CIA. Ames was supposed to report any romantic relationships with foreign nationals to his superiors, but declined to do so. His coworkers at the CIA station in Mexico were aware of his relationship with Maria, but did not report it either. In September of 1983, Ames was recalled to Washington once more, and he brought his Colombian lover with him. Unsurprisingly, his wife served him with divorce papers the next month. 

Ames was now back at the Soviet and East European division of the CIA, and at the end of 1983, he finally reported his affair with Maria to his CIA superiors. His divorce was costly, as he was forced to pay off his and Nancy’s debts. In addition, he was required to pay alimony for the next three years. To make matters worse, Maria was from a wealthy Colombian family, and she expected to live in luxury. Ames, nearly bankrupted by his divorce, was feeling the financial heat. 


Seeking out the Soviets

Working in a division that dealt with Soviet counterintelligence, Ames was expected to make contacts at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, just as he did in the 1970s. He knew the names of important officials at the embassy, and decided he would use these contacts to remedy his financial problems. In early 1985, he sold his first trove of information to the Soviet KGB for a price of $50,000. Ames would later state that this information was not of particular importance, but that it established him as a credible source of CIA intelligence. He had entered into an alliance that he could not turn away from; the Soviets expected more information, and Ames wanted more money. In August of 1985, he and Maria were married. Ames’ motivation for betraying the United States began to evolve, from financial need into pure greed.

Over the years, the Soviets often targeted Americans who were in over their heads financially as potential sources of information. However, in the case of Ames, he saw espionage for pay as a way to do more than merely keep his head above water; he started living the good life and became addicted to it. For years, Ames had been wearing suits off the bargain rack; now he was wearing custom tailored suits that were more expensive than the ones worn by the top officials at the CIA. He and his new bride developed expensive tastes, with Ames explaining to his coworkers that this was a result of his wife’s family fortune.

By the latter part of 1985, the CIA knew something was badly wrong. Soviets who were spying for the United States were starting to disappear, and word began to trickle in later that these individuals had been arrested and executed. During 1986, Ames told his Soviet handlers that in light of these CIA losses, he was worried that he might become a suspect. The KGB by this time considered Ames too valuable to lose, and took steps to protect him. A carefully planned campaign of misinformation was carried out by the Soviets, leading the CIA to believe the mole was at the Warrenton Training Center in Virginia. The United States spent a year investigating nearly 100 people at the facility.

Later in 1986, the CIA created a mole-hunt team whose sole purpose was to find the source of the leaks. About the same time, Ames was transferred to Rome, which helped him stay under the radar of suspicion. His drinking increased, and his CIA work in Rome was less than stellar, while he continued to sell information to the Soviets. He was once again recalled to Washington in 1990, being assigned this time to the Counterintelligence Center Analysis Group within the CIA.

The CIA mole-hunt team, around 1990.

The CIA mole-hunt team, around 1990.

To Catch a Mole

The clues finally began to point toward Ames, as the members of the CIA mole-hunt team started to closely examine his finances. He had passed a polygraph test in 1986, which had bought him time. However, by 1990, his lifestyle, when compared to his salary, made no sense. When the CIA team examined this, it found that Ames had bought a $540,000 House in Virginia, as well as a $50,000 Jaguar. The minimum monthly payment on his credit card was more than his salary paid him in a month.

Still, Ames was hard to catch. He passed another polygraph in 1991, while a CIA operator incorrectly reported that the mole was a Russian-born agent who had infiltrated the Agency. However, by 1993, all signs pointed to Ames as the culprit. The FBI bugged Ames’ home and installed a device in his car that was used to track his movements. He was kept under constant surveillance as the case was built against him.

The Soviet Union had fallen in 1991, but Ames had continued to spy for the Russian Federation, the country that had formed out of much of the U.S.S.R. He was scheduled to attend a conference in Moscow in the spring of 1994, and American authorities decided it was time to arrest him, fearing he might defect if allowed to attend. On the morning of February 22, he was arrested in Washington and charged with spying. The same morning, FBI agents came to his home, arresting and charging his wife also.

Aldrich Ames pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole. His wife had been heard on surveillance tapes discussing Ames’ activities, as he had told her about his role with the Soviets. He had previously told her that he was making large amounts of money on various investments. Maria ended up being sentenced to five years in prison. CIA Director James Woolsey came under heavy fire in the wake of Ames’ capture. Woolsey had only become Director in 1993, but he was criticized for not cleaning house at the Agency after such a fiasco. The CIA as a whole endured heavy criticism for not catching Ames sooner.

The movieAldrich Ames: Traitor Within was made in 1998, and the ABC mini-series The Assets, produced in 2014, was based on Ames. Two members of the CIA mole-hunt team, Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, wrote a book about the experience.

Aldrich Ames remains in prison at the Federal Detention Center in Terre Haute, Indiana. He pocketed nearly 3 million dollars from the KGB during his years of espionage. While his CIA career was merely mediocre, he was without a doubt one of most valuable Cold War spies for the Soviet Union.


What do you think about Aldrich Ames’ actions?


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

Chester B. Hearn, Spies & Espionage: A Directory,Thunder Bay Press, San Diego, 2006

Slava Katamidze, Loyal Spies & Ruthless Killers: The Secret Services of the USSR, 1917-1991, Barnes & Noble, New York, 2007

Peter Maas, Killer Spy: The Inside Story of the FBI’s Pursuit and Capture of Aldrich Ames, America’s Deadliest Spy, Warner Books, New York, 1995

Tim Weiner, David Johnston, and Neil A. Lewis, Betrayal: The Story of Aldrich Ames, an American Spy, Random House, New York, 1995

Following the finding of the spies who shared American atomic secrets with the Soviet Union (read more here), the “Red Scare” was sweeping over 1950s Cold War America. And Cold War espionage was not going away. Here Scott Rose explains how Rudolf Abel’s New York-based Soviet spy ring was discovered in 1957.

A Soviet stamp from 1990 commemorating Rudolf Abel.

A Soviet stamp from 1990 commemorating Rudolf Abel.

The United States broke the Soviet atomic spy ring in the early 1950s, after the USSR had already accomplished its goal of acquiring the American information its scientists needed to build an atomic weapon. However, this was not the end of Cold War espionage between the two superpowers; in fact, it was barely the beginning. Both countries used every available method to find out each other’s plans and secrets, and in the process, many participants in this game either died, were sent to prison, or were ruined personally and politically.

When atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were tried, convicted and executed, they never admitted guilt or gave up any of their contacts. One of their contemporaries in New York was running a Soviet spy ring of his own, which he built for seven years after the Rosenbergs were arrested.


An Espionage Artist

In 1948, an artist and photographer named Emil Goldfus rented a small studio in Brooklyn. While his artistic talents were average at best, Goldfus had a talent for espionage that was anything but average. Mr. Goldfus was actually a Soviet KGB colonel named Rudolf Abel, and he had been one of the Soviet Union’s greatest spies during World War II. Proficient in Russian, English, Polish, German, and Yiddish, Abel was a uniquely versatile spy. He had perfectly impersonated a German military officer and was able to give the Red Army valuable information on German troop movements.

Abel came to New York in 1948, and he quickly built a spy network in America. In addition to his new espionage contacts, he made friends among other artists, who never had any reason to suspect him as being anyone other than who he said he was. Abel would sometimes leave town for weeks at a time, which his friends attributed to his eccentric, bohemian personality. 

By 1954, Abel had built a large spying operation, and his methods of transmitting coded messages included placing microfilm inside of hollowed-out bolts, coins, and pencils. The Soviets decided Abel needed an assistant, to which he objected. Nevertheless, the Soviets sent an agent named Reimo Hayhanen to help Abel in New York. Abel quickly found his assistant to be completely incompetent, but tried his best to make an effective spy out of Hayhanen. A year later the KGB was concerned that Abel was becoming exhausted, and recalled him to the USSR for six months of vacation. When Abel returned to Brooklyn, he found his operation in shambles. Hayhanen had been extremely careless, and had spent much of the network’s finances on alcohol and prostitutes. By 1957, Abel had had enough, and demanded that his assistant be recalled to the Soviet Union. Hayhanen received his recall orders, and panicked, fearing he would be executed upon arriving in Moscow. He made it as far as Paris, where he walked into the American embassy, telling his story and pleading for asylum. At first, the CIA suspected Hayhanen was drunk, and he may very well have been. However, they decided to verify the information he had given them, and realized he was telling the truth.

When Hayhanen didn’t arrive in Moscow, the Soviets knew right away that he had defected. Abel was recalled, but didn’t make it out of the United States. Just before he was scheduled to leave, the FBI arrested him at a hotel in New York. He knew he was caught when an FBI agent addressed him as “Colonel.” Ever the professional, Abel didn’t say a word when he was arrested, simply staring ahead. However, Abel had not disposed of the evidence in his studio before he attempted to leave the United States, a surprising error for a spy as seasoned as Abel. When the studio was raided, the FBI realized it had found a goldmine of information. All sorts of spying and transmission equipment were found in the studio, but most importantly, there were photos of Soviet agents in the USA, along with lists of their names. Within weeks, Abel’s entire network of spies was shut down.


The Client Nobody Wanted to Represent

Abel was charged with espionage, and his next predicament was that there were hardly any defense attorneys in America that wanted to represent him. In the late 1950s, the United States was dealing with the lingering effects of the Rosenberg case as well as the “Red Scare” that had been whipped up by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had had ruined many careers by accusing people in all parts of American government and culture of having communist leanings. Not many lawyers, especially ones with political ambitions, could afford to be seen defending a KGB colonel in court. Eventually, the US government found an attorney willing to take on the case. James Donovan, who had previously worked for the American OSS (the precursor to the CIA), agreed to represent Abel. This would seem quite ironic, but Donovan actually did everything he could to defend his client.

When the case went to trial, it probably would not have mattered who his lawyer was, as the evidence against Rudolf Abel was massive and undeniable. In essence, Donovan knew Abel was probably going to be convicted. His main objective at this point was to keep Abel from getting the death penalty, as the Rosenbergs had. He succeeded in this; when the court found Abel guilty, his life was spared in favor of a 30-year prison sentence. Donovan was not finished though, appealing the case to the US Supreme Court. He argued that the evidence from the studio, by which Abel was convicted, had been obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld Abel’s conviction, and he was sent to the federal penitentiary in Atlanta to begin his sentence.

While in prison, Abel kept himself busy with intellectual activities, such as painting and playing chess. Some days, he even passed the time by writing out tables of mathematical logarithms. Abel befriended several other convicted spies, including the Rosenbergs’ former accomplice, Morton Sobell. A couple of years after beginning his sentence, events on the other side of the globe would begin to work in Abel’s favor.

The FBI mugshot of Rudolf Abel after his arrest in 1957.

The FBI mugshot of Rudolf Abel after his arrest in 1957.

Gary Powers and the U-2 Incident

In 1960, the Soviets claimed to have shot down an American U-2 spy plane that was performing reconnaissance over the USSR. The pilot, Gary Powers, had ejected and survived, but was captured and brought to trial. The trial was designed to be a major propaganda victory, but it turned into an embarrassment for the Soviets. Powers admitted piloting a spy plane, adding that he had been flying reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union for the past four years. He also told the court that his plane was not shot down at all; the U-2 had suffered a flame-out that had forced him to eject.  When the trial ended in August 1960, Powers was sentenced to ten years in a Soviet prison.

James Donovan, who had represented Rudolf Abel at his trial, recognized the opportunity to free both Abel and Powers. He orchestrated a prisoner exchange with the Soviets, who were eager to get Abel back. In February of 1962, Abel was released to the Soviet Union after serving only four years of his sentence. Likewise, Gary Powers was returned to the United States, where after retiring from the Air Force, he became a test pilot, as well as a helicopter traffic reporter for a Los Angeles television station. The prisoner exchange took place on the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin. As part of the swap, an American student named Frederic Pryor was released from the custody of the East Berlin police. In August of 1961, Pryor had been arrested and held by the East Germans, on the false suspicion that he was a spy for the CIA.

The Soviets treated Abel well when he returned, as he had been a valuable Cold War operative before being brought down by a bumbling assistant. He continued working for the KGB, even giving speeches to Soviet schoolchildren about intelligence operations. Just as Morris and Lona Cohen (two of the American atomic spies) were commemorated on Soviet postage stamps, Abel was honored on a stamp in 1990, one year before the fall of the Soviet Union. However, Abel’s luck had run out long before; after a lifetime of chain smoking, he died of lung cancer in 1971.

The story of the prisoner exchange was portrayed in the 2015 film Bridge of Spies.Frederic Pryor, who is still alive, went to see the film and claimed to have enjoyed it, while considering it to be over-dramatized. Pryor told a fellow moviegoer that the film had many inaccuracies, and the other person replied by asking Pryor, “How do you know that?” Pryor answered, “I’m Frederic Pryor.”


What do you think of the article? Let us know below.


Chester B. Hearn, Spies & Espionage: A Directory, Thunder Bay Press, 2006

James B. Donovan, Strangers On A Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel, Atheneum House, 2015

Ryan Dougherty, “Economist Frederic Pryor Recounts Life as a ‘Spy’”, Swarthmore College News & Events, October 21, 2015

Giles Whittell, Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War, Broadway Books, 2010