Friday, April 15, 2011, was most peculiar. Basically, I arose at 0600 hours, drove 200 miles, chatted with a guy for almost four hours, and drove home. It was the particulars of the day, however, that made it unique. Indeed, one of the particulars is that the day really began the night before as I tossed and turned in bed trying to settle out in my mind just what I should say to the guy I would meet the next day: Aldrich Ames, Prisoner No. 40087-083
, US Penitentiary, Allenwood, Pennsylvania. As it turned out, the mechanics of the meeting went well–considering the special process of visitors to a high-security prison–and the essence of my conversation with Rick was not unpleasant, at least to the degree or in the way I had anticipated.
Only twice before have I visited prisoners. The first time was in 1952. I, along with other members of Safety Patrol in the city, was allowed to take a tour of Tucker State Prison Farm in Arkansas. We were loaded onto a bus and taken to the prison and shown all around. The food was fair, the security seemed minimal, the sleeping areas for the prisoners were awful, but Death Row and the execution room were utterly fascinating. In the execution room, there was the electric chair. Then, we were taken to Death Row and allowed to talk to two guys who were awaiting execution. One guy just shrugged and had no real interest in talking to us. The other guy was quite talkative and jovial. Asked why he was there, he said he had sung too loud in church. One of our escorts later told us that the prisoner had killed two policemen.
The second time I dealt with prisoners was in Vietnam in 1966. I was a Lieutenant with the 137 Medical Detachment (KJ), headquartered near the Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Saigon. We were asked to give some dental treatment to a young Viet Cong prisoner, so our unit commander, a dentist, took me along and we went to the prison. After quite a lot of work, the prisoner lived.
Ames has lived, too. And I am surprised that he was not given the death penalty for what he did. He didn’t just give up some classified information, he disclosed the identity of numerous Russian agents working for the CIA, and those agents were rounded up and summarily executed. It was that part of his treason that colored most of my thinking about visiting him in prison. But I was not only curious about Ames in some ways, but I was determined to “live life directly”, to speak with him face-to-face instead of just reading a press release or hearing what someone else had to say about him. Getting permission to visit Ames was not easy. As I discovered, access to Ames in prison is not controlled by the Bureau of Prisons, but by the CIA. Well, after almost a year and a half, I finally got the green light, and I drove up to Allenwood.
I had been to Allenwood once before, to deliver some lectures on Asian mindsets to the prison staff. On that occasion, I did not enter one of the three prisons there. I only went to the Allenwood Training Center, delivered the lectures and drove home. This time, however, I went to the US Penitentiary at Allenwood, the high-security facility there. I arrived at the facility at 1000 hours, signed in, put my possessions in a locker, went through a metal detector, and was escorted to the second-floor area where visitors were allowed to meet with prisoners. It was a large, open room, filled with small, low, numbered tables, each with two chairs, a blue one for visitors and a beige one for prisoners. About six of the tables were already in use when I took my seat at about 1030 hours and waited for Ames to appear. He finally appeared at 1100 hours. Apparently, it is only after the visitor is seated that prisoners are alerted, strip-searched, and given special clothing to go to a meeting.
When he appeared at the table where I was waiting, we shook hands and we started by chit-chatting about the Farm, the CIA training base where Ames and I, and about 30 other “Career Trainees”, had spent a year back in 1968. The topic was an ice-breaker. It was a move to “establish rapport”, the golden rule of clandestine operations that we learned in the CIA. It helped both of us get started, because it seemed that Ames, as with me, was a bit apprehensive. After we had gone over a few stories of the Farm, I told Ames that I had, essentially, three questions for him, one or two of which would be obvious and fairly direct, but that I would hold off on the third question until the right moment. I also said that it would be useful for both of us to declare at the outset just why we were having the meeting. I told him that my motivation was basically curiosity and a desire to live life directly (I even explained about how that applied to the scene of my parents’ deaths). I said that I was not there because I was writing a book (as so many had suggested) or acting on behalf of the CIA. I then asked why he agreed to meet me. Ames said he, too, was motivated by curiosity. I am sure, however, that his motivation was not that simple.
Over the next four hours that we chatted, with increasing ease, I came to believe he is desperate for meaningful conversation with intelligent persons. I do not imagine that I am any great or smart conversationalist, but from what little he said about his fellow inmates, I can imagine that Ames’ main problem is how to keep his mind active. He reads a lot, and he teaches some courses (one of which is Spanish language, but also speaks Turkish, Russian and some Chinese) to other prisoners, his son comes from Bogota once a year to visit, and his younger sister, Nancy Everly, sees him once a month and speaks with him by telephone quite frequently, but I am sure he wants more. I certainly do not want to be his Pen Pal, or talk to him by telephone, but I just might go up to see him one more time. I think he and I have pretty much exhausted the stories we can tell about the Farm, but there are one or two matters on which I hope he will comment.
I will list below some of his specific comments, but first I should describe the most powerful and, for him, the most disturbing part of our meeting. It occurred a bit early in our meeting, maybe even in the first hour. Ames had been talking about various things related to his perfidy when he started to talk about how it had affected him. He had offered a few general comments, and had mentioned something to the effect that “if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss will begin to look at you.” But he stopped speaking. He choked up. He crossed his ankles and folded his arms. He even seemed to be on the verge of crying. This lasted for a long, long time, almost two whole minutes. I could only sit there, look and him and wonder when he might resume talking. I did not want to ease his thoughts by speaking about something else. I did want to hear more about how his treason had affected him. Two minutes doesn’t seem like much, but when you are waiting for someone to speak, it seems a long, long time. Well, he finally came ’round, and explained that he felt enormous shame and embarrassment for what he had caused to his family and friends. I could only shrug and accept his statement, because I was, and am, still unwilling to forgive him, whatever his feelings of regret. (His regret could be like that of so many criminals: they come to feel regret only after getting caught. And, actually, I think Ames might even specifically agree to that.) I will give him this amount of credit: if he was just putting on an act for me, it was a stellar performance.
Ames’ memory is better than mine. He was able to recall the student aliases of one or two of our CT classmates that I could not recall: Avery for XXX and Horsely for XXX. Oddly, however, he claimed he was not sure what his own student alias had been. Ashley?
It was obvious that Ames had thought a fair amount about what he might say to me, just as I had wondered about what to say to him. One of the things we easily agreed on, besides what fun we had at the Farm, was how nice his sister is. She is his psychological mainstay, and the two of them share all information that comes to them. I was surprised to hear from Ames several things I had told his sister. Now that I know how frequently he talks with her by telephone, I guess that is easier to understand, but it also leaves open the possibility that the two of them can play games with a third party. For example, Nancy told me some things about Ames’ second wife, Rosario, but suggested I not say anything to her brother about what she had told me. Will she now ask her brother what I might have said yesterday about Rosario? I could throw a wrench into things by telling each of them different versions of a story, and letting them work it all out between themselves, but it is not worth the effort. I don’t know of any dividend for me, and, besides, I do not plan on my relationship with either of them lasting very long.
Well, here are some of the specific things he said:
1. As to why he “did it”, I introduced the question by reminding him of our instruction in the way of “spotting, assessing, developing, recruiting, and terminating” and that I found, as I am sure he found, that agents could be recruited by or for a wide range of things: alcohol, money, ego, ideology, etc. Ames responded quickly by saying that in his case it was for “all the above” reasons. He went on to explain that had been an alcoholic and that he desperately needed money, especially after getting married a second time. He said he was not developed and recruited by the Soviets, but that he just offered them information. (I had asked him before if he had been a “walk in” and whether he started working for them in Mexico City or in Washington, DC. He said he started in Washington, DC, and that it was easy to contact them because his CIA job involved direct contact with Soviets.) He said he arranged a “scam” for the first $50,000 payment he received. His position at the CIA allowed him to know what would interest the Soviets and so he arranged to give them some phony information in exchange for the money. Then, he explained the ego part of it all. He said he simply came to believe that he would not get caught, that he was too smart to get caught. As for ideology, Ames said he began early on to have reservations about the usefulness of the US pursuing the Cold War. He said Nixon and Reagan began it all and unnecessarily continued it. Ames said that he, himself, was not a socialist or a communist, but that just found the Cold War to be a political ploy of American politicians. (At another point in our conversation, Ames said—to my amazement—that he was a patriotic American and that if we had ever gone to war with the Soviet Union, he would have, without question, fought against them. I could only listen to that without comment.)
2. As to the second question I wanted Ames to answer, where did he start working for the Soviets, he gave me the simple answer noted above, and I could not find another easy way get back to the matter.
3. The third question I had for Ames had to do with the Farm, and whether he felt neglected or sad at the Farm. Time and time again he talked about how much fun he had at the Farm. I easily agreed with him that it was fun, especially the paramilitary operations part. He and I also agreed that the intelligence operations part was very demanding and required close attention and many extra hours—to the point that we often got only an hour or two of sleep before having to go to class the next morning. However, overall, it was fun, and we were getting paid to have fun. After giving him many opportunities to express some/any reservations about his experience at the Farm, I told him about the scene of him in the student club that haunted me for years, even before he was arrested: one evening I saw him get a Diet Coke at the bar, then move to an adjoining room to play shuffleboard by himself. The rest of us would get a beer, play poker, tell stories and jokes, and generally play around. We were a gregarious bunch. Indeed, that is why we were selected for intelligence operations. Others in the Agency would go to paramilitary operations, or go into intelligence analysis, but Case Officers were those who would go out and recruit agents.
So, why was Ames going off to play by himself? Well, to my surprise, Ames said that while he felt a little different from most of the other guys (and a few girls) in our class, because of his lack of military experience or post-graduate education, he never felt neglected or lonely or sad at the Farm. The only problem he had was that he often drank too much alcohol in the evenings, and then he would have a huge hangover the next morning when we had to go to class. As to enjoying the student club, he accurately described the layout of the club and all the activities that I remember—except him playing shuffleboard by himself. He said one of his biggest delights was to drink beer and chat with Jack Downing, and that Jack would relax after about three beers and start quoting poetry. (He mentioned the poet’s name, but I didn’t recognize it, and don’t remember it now.) He had a number of incidental things to say about Downing’s highly successful career, all complimentary.
I told Ames the story of my first meeting with Downing, the one that featured the song “Dog-Faced Soldier”. Ames liked that story.) In the end, I told Ames that I was relieved to know that he had not felt lonely or neglected at the Farm, because I had often chided myself for not being a better classmate, specifically for not joining him in playing shuffleboard. (I also told Ames that there was one other regret I had about my time at the Farm: my lack of generosity in helping XXX with typing his operational reports. Ames said he knew XXX and that I had mentioned XXX to Nancy, but he did not elaborate.)
4. Ames told the story of XXX, a physician and one of our CT classmates. XXX became quite a success and was named Deputy Chief of Station, Caracas, but he was found to have a male lover and had to resign from the Agency. (Was it XXX or was it XXX of our class who could not get himself to jump out the door of the C-47 when we were learning parachuting?)
5. When I first mentioned Sir William Stephenson (“The Man Called Intrepid”), Ames immediately scorned him as a self-promoter. (That is exactly the sentiment of Dr. Christopher James, or James Christopher, a British writer on intelligence matters who was the guest speaker at an NSA event.) However, when I went on to explain Sir William’s relationship with Dr. Ernest L. Cuneo, a man for whom I am still working to obtain a posthumous award, Ames changed his tone. Ames, obviously, did not want to upset me. This happened a few other times, too, in our conversation. He was sensitive to my views.
6. Ames expressed contempt for DCI Helms and other prominent CIA officials such as Karamassines. He said they were pursuing intelligence operations more for their own thrills than for good of the nation. And he again said that was part of his reasoning/willingness to commit treason.
7. Ames has little regard for the current DCI, Leon Panetta, saying that Panetta is no longer a true DCI, that he only heads the CIA, and that the Director of National Intelligence is now the one who has direct access to the President.
That is about all of importance that happened in my visit to Allenwood. Rick asked me to tell Nancy that the CIA’s phone system was out. He explained that all his phone calls out go through the CIA, just as his letters out first go to the CIA. So, on my drive home, I placed a call to Nancy’s cell phone and left a message saying I had seen her brother and telling her his comment about not being able to reach her lately. Neither Ames nor I had any lunch, although I offered to buy him a sandwich from a machine available to visitors. He did let me buy him a soft drink. There was no coffee available. Ames said visitors had been found spitting balloons (of what? Drugs?) into their coffee cups, so the prison removed the coffee machines. At 1445 hours, a buzzer sounded, and the guards announced that all persons must keep seated, and that one by one, the prisoners and their visitors would be called to depart. Odd, but after only one prisoner left, the rest of us left together. I should note that the prison staff was quite good towards visitors. Going through security at the prison was more pleasant and easier than checking in for a flight at some airport. For one thing, I did not have to remove my shoes.
(The second, third and fourth meeting with Ames will be posted on this blog tomorrow)