Promises to Traitors Matter: Ames and Blood Money


FROM MY FILES FRIDAY:  When Edward Snowden sought asylum in Russia after leaking National Security Agency documents to the media, I began getting telephone calls. Reporters wanted to know if I thought the Kremlin would welcome Snowden or turn him over to American authorities. I predicted Moscow would protect him.  If  Russia would have refused him asylum, spies currently working for Russia would have become alarmed — even though Snowden never worked for Russian intelligence. The following blog describes how important image and reputations are in the spy game, so much so, that the Russians tried to interest me in helping deliver $2 million to CIA traitor Aldrich Ames several months after he was arrested.

A Spy Story: Ames, Blood Money and Me,  published Nov. 15, 2010

If you’ve read my book, Confessions of a Spy: The Real Story of Aldrich Ames, you already know that I was able to interview the CIA traitor, Aldrich Ames, for eleven  days without government censors listening to our conversations.    This is because federal  prosecutors had notified everyone – Ames’ defense attorneys, the FBI, the CIA, and Justice Department – that Ames was not to be interviewed by the media, except for the officials who mattered the most — the deputies in charge of the Alexandria  jail.

When the U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case discovered that I had slipped into the jail undetected, he was not happy.

Ames asked me to go to Moscow and gave me a handwritten letter to show his KGB (now called SVR) handlers. He also told me his “parole,” which in spy lingo, is the secret word that only his SVR contact would know. Using that word would verify that he’d sent me.

One reason Ames wanted me to travel to Russia was because the SVR owed him money – around $2 million. The SVR always holds back money in Moscow for its spies. It supposedly is for their retirement. It also keeps them on the hook. Ames wanted me to ask his SVR handlers how they planned to pay him now that he was in prison.

I laughed when he first mentioned this. After all, he was going to be in prison for the remainder of his life. I didn’t see why the Russians would feel compelled to shell-out unpaid cash that had been promised to him.

But Ames told me that the SVR would pay. Why? Because other Americans who were spying for the Russians – and not yet caught – would be curious if the SVR kept its promises. In the murky world of espionage, promises matter.

I went to Moscow,  met with the SVR and was told that Russian intelligence did want to get Ames the money that it owed him.  In fact, I was asked if I would help deliver some of his $2 million to him. Of course, I would be paid a fee for helping. For a moment, I fantasized about meeting an SVR officer  later in some dark alley and having him slip me a briefcase stuffed with $100 bills.

But I was not about to get involved in any payoffs to an American traitor and I suspected my SVR host was simply testing to see if I could be corrupted.

Over the years, I’ve often wondered if the SVR found a way to deliver money to Ames — possibly by sending funds to his ex-wife who now lives in Colombia. I’m assuming the FBI and CIA have been watching too.  I also wondered what laws I would have broken if I had been stupid enough to bite on the SVR’s bait.

The answer came this week when another U.S. traitor got into trouble for trying to collect loot being held for him in Moscow.

Harold James Nicholson, a former CIA case officer, sent his 25-year-old son to meet with Russian agents to collect $47,000 in “retirement” pay. A one-time CIA station chief in Romania, Nicholson is now serving a 23-year-prison sentence for working as a Russia spy between 1994-to 1996. Among other secrets, he told the Russians the names of CIA operatives and trainees in return for $300,000.

In this recent episode, the FBI trailed his son, Nathaniel, overseas where he met with Russians. As soon as he came home, he was arrested.  Among his possessions was a book with “paroles” that his father had given him to authenticate that he was speaking on Nicholson’s behalf.

Nicholson and Nathaniel were charged with money laundering and conspiracy to represent a foreign government – at long last answering my question about what laws I would have been breaking if I’d agreed to deliver loot to Ames.

An Army veteran, Nathaniel was expected to get probation. His father was expected to get eight more years tacked on his sentence. Dwight C. Holton, the U.S. Attorney who prosecuted him, said Nicholson “not only betrayed his country – again – but also betrayed his family.”

Some thoughts:

Ames had been correct. The Russians were willing to pay him “retirement” money. They paid Nicholson, so why not him?

Somewhere in the U.S. right now, a traitor has read about Nicholson and how the SVR tried to pay him. That traitor probably feels good about what he read.

When I interviewed one of the KGB’s best spymasters, Boris Solomatin, in Moscow, he told me that every time the U.S. captured an Ames or a Nicholson and put it on the news, the heads of Russian intelligence secretly smiled.  They knew that most Americans would be angry and horrified that a modern Benedict Arnold had betrayed our country.

But there would be another American out there who would see the news and think – “I could spy and get away with it.”

Sadly, that American would soon be knocking on the SVR’s door.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.