Deep Dive into History: Catching the Spy Aldrich Ames

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Tuesday, Feb 21 2023 by

Everyone loves a good spy thriller. Names like James Bond and Jason Bourne are familiar to many, but most real-life spies go their entire lives without revealing their names, or secrets. Unless you get caught, of course, like Aldrich Ames.

Aldrich Ames is known as one of the worst double agents in American spy history. He betrayed his country and got many people killed, all to earn a little extra money.

It was on this date in 1994 that the career CIA spy was arrested in Arlington, Virginia, wrapping up one of the worst leaks in CIA history. Let’s  take a look at his life, and terrible legacy.

CIA Headquarters, McLean, Virginia

Aldrich was exposed early in life to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) because his father worked there, and he even got a job filing papers in his high school years. After a few fits and starts, he eventually started his spy career at CIA headquarters in McLean, Virginia.

The headquarters, now called the George Bush Center for Intelligence after former CIA leader and US president George Bush Sr., is located right outside Washington, DC. The headquarters is very private. While the location is public information, only people with clearance, or a very specific appointment and approval, are allowed on the property. There’s a Starbucks on site, but as you would expect, they don’t ask names, and are very private.

Over his career, Aldrich worked here several times, when he was stationed stateside.

CIA Headquarters (Google Maps)
CIA Headquarters

Cam Peary, AKA “The Farm”, Williamsburg, Virginia

During World War II, the government recognized the need for a location where they could train individuals in covert tactics. They settled on an area in Virginia and named it Camp Peary.

During World War II, it was used to house top-secret German prisoners of war. If the German government realized certain people had been captured, not killed, it would have compromised US intelligence.

After the war, the area was turned into a training facility for covert operatives and foreign intelligence officers. They are taught many classified skills, but we generally know they are taught techniques for evading capture, enduring torture, surveillance, cryptography, and more.

While the closed-lips CIA hasn’t reported about when or if Ames went to Camp Peary, it’s likely, as many agents who travel overseas are sent here for training.

Camp Peary - CIA's "The Farm" (Bing Maps)
Camp Peary - CIA's "The Farm"

Ames’ Home, Arlington, Virginia

Aldrich Ames married and divorced a fellow CIA operative, and then remarried in 1985. It was at this point it is believed he began spying for the then-Soviet Union, as a means to recoup money lost in the divorce. What started as a one-time thing led to him betraying more than ten high-level assets, for at least $4.6 million.

He quickly began to spend the money he received from spying, drawing attention of his peers. He even paid for this Arlington, Virginia home, in cash for $540,000, and adding another $100,000 in home renovations. In fact, his wife, who was later convicted as a co-conspirator, boasted to a fellow CIA employee that she was installing drapes through the whole house at once, even though it was very expensive. Her phone bill alone was more than Aldrich made, at $6,000 a month!

Spy Residence (StreetView)
Spy Residence

Chadwick’s Restaurant, Hand-Off Site, Washington, DC

Eventually, the CIA realized they had a mole, or a leak, in the agency. They assembled a team, and set to work. It took more than five years, but by 1993, they were convinced the spy was Aldrich. They followed him constantly for months, amassing evidence against him.

They realized his known monthly meetings often held at Chadwick’s in DC with a Soviet official were sometimes a cover for his delivery of classified US information in exchange for large amounts of cash. He spied for more than six years, betraying “virtually all Soviet agents of the CIA and other American and foreign services” that he knew of.

Spy Rendezvous (StreetView)
Spy Rendezvous

Arrest Site, Arlington, Virginia

Finally, the CIA caught onto him, and he was arrested here, just a few blocks from his home, on February 21, 1994. At first, he claimed the officers had the wrong man, but it was quickly clear he was guilty of spying.

Spy Arrest Site (StreetView)
Spy Arrest Site

US Penitentiary,  Terre Haute, Indiana

Aldrich recognized that he was going to be convicted, and chose to avoid a trial and the risk of the death penalty for espionage and treason. He spoiled more than 100 investigations and outed more than 30 individuals, many of whom were killed by the Soviet government.

As part of their agreement, Aldrich pled guilty and was sentenced to life in prison, and his wife was sentenced to jail for five years. He is currently serving his sentence in the US penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. He will never be a free man again.

United States Penitentiary (Birds Eye)
United States Penitentiary

While it’s unclear exactly how many people died because of Aldrich’s spying, it’s certain he was responsible for at least a dozen deaths. Several agents were arrested and killed in a very short period, and many others were later arrested by their governments. He was clearly an evil, greedy man, willing to betray his country, and jeopardize the lives of countless Americans and others, all so he and his wife could drive a fancy car, have nice clothes, and live a luxurious lifestyle.