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Intelligence in Public Literature

Note: This book review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Studies in Intelligence.

Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed

Sandra Grimes and Jeanne Vertefeuille, (Naval Institute Press, 2012) 240 pp, endnotes, photos, index.

Reviewed by Hayden Peake

Jeanne Vertefeuille (pronounced: ver te fay) began her CIA career in 1954, and  specialized in counterintelligence working the Soviet account. Sandra Grimes, a 26-year veteran of the Clandestine Service, spent much of her career working against Soviet targets. Their book, Circle of Treason, is the first published work on the mole hunt that identified Aldrich Ames as a KGB agent that can truly be said to provide an insider perspective.

In the first two chapters of the book, the authors summarize their CIA careers and explain how they came to be assigned to the mole hunt. The next four chapters provide background about how the CIA worked against the Soviet target. They also discuss how counterintelligence (CI) operations were influenced by the Angleton-era legacy and its impact on subsequent CI procedures. Detailed attention is given the case of Dmitriy Fedorovich Polyakov, a Soviet military intelligence officer and the “highest-ranking spy ever run against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.” This case introduces the reader to how agents are run by both the FBI and the CIA and does not avoid the controversies that arose between them.

Having laid the groundwork, Grimes and Vertefeuille then discuss the extraordinary number of agents that were compromised—discovered by the KGB—in the mid 1980s. They identify the key players—including their codenames—and the CIA, FBI and KGB organizational elements involved. The reader gets a good idea of the complexities of agent handling in the field—especially in Moscow—and how they were supported at CIA Headquarters.

With regard to the compromised cases, Grimes and Vertefeuille learned that some ended for explainable reasons--the agent, Aleksey Kulak, for example, died of natural causes. Others, for example, Sergey Bokhan were exfiltrated—Bokhan from Athens in May 1985, after he concluded he was under suspicion. But when a series of compromises occurred in relatively quick succession for no obvious reasons during 1985 and 1986, CI alarms went off. The authors describe the actions taken. Some of those compromises were eventually explained by KGB defector Vitali Yurchenko, who exposed the former CIA officer Edward Howard, who defected to the KGB and gave up the prized agent Adolf Tolkachev. Similarly, the Czech intelligence officer Karl Koecher, who had penetrated the CIA as a translator, was responsible for identifying Aleksandr Ogorodnikov. But many more appeared inexplicable It was at this point that what came to be called “the back room” group—which included the Grimes and Vertefeuille —was formed and the mole hunt began.

Circle of Treason looks at what was done, by whom, and when—including operational details. These range from the formation of databases of thousands of reports to the creation of detailed chronologies and to the handling of KGB deception ploys that at first glance seemed to be promising explanations for the losses. Grimes and Vertefeuille explain the other possible causes that were studied with time-consuming thoroughness. Throughout this process, bureaucratic factors complicated matters, including disagreements with the FBI and reassignments of back room group members. When new compartmentation measures were established to protect new recruitments and the losses stopped as suddenly as they had begun, it appeared that the worst was over, although the reason or reasons for the original compromises had not been resolved. But the authors persevered and devised extraordinary measures to finally expose Ames.

Grimes and Vertefeuille’s discussion of these matters helps explain why Ames was not identified until 1992 and not arrested until 1994. Only one issue is not dealt with directly and that is why a list of those officers with knowledge of all the compromised cases was not made until 1991.

The coauthors conclude their narrative with some candid comments about the aftermath of the case. They are critical of the FBI public statement “that gave the impression that they [the FBI] had done all the real work while we [the CIA] had provided cooperation and support.” They are equally hard on themselves in their discussion of the lessons learned. Failure to keep Congress informed and poor documentation in terms of periodic progress reports, to name two examples. On the positive side, they note that generally excellent cooperation with the FBI at the working level was an important factor in the eventual success.

The endnotes do not refer to primary source documents, as this is a firsthand account. The authors do comment critically on other books on this and related cases, and they include a useful chronology that aids in following events.

Circle of Treason is an enormously important account of a complex, often frustrating, case written by those who did much of the work to break it.


Posted: Jan 04, 2013 11:09 AM
Last Updated: Jan 04, 2013 11:09 AM