–by Kayla Griffis, USCHS intern
The “Spies of Capitol” tour led by Carol Bessette on September 27th really brought out the history of intelligence here in DC. As the tour began at Union Station, which is within the jurisdiction of Capitol Hill, Bessette outlined what intelligence truly means for government agencies. A former intelligence officer for the United States Air Force, she is incredibly knowledgeable about all things spy- and intelligence-related.
One story Bessette told was about the spy Aldrich Ames. Apparently, Ames was in debt due to his somewhat messy divorce from his first wife. He had met a woman, Rosario, in Mexico while still married, and when he got back to the states he and his wife divorced, leaving Ames with a sizable amount of debt. Also, his second wife, Rosario, didn’t help matters either as she enjoyed the high life, running up huge debts. He knew that the KGB paid well for CIA spies. Ames also had easy access to highly classified information. Thus, while at Union Station one day, he made up his mind to become a spy. His information was so valuable that he was one of the highest-paid spies during the Cold War. One ostentatious example of his new-found wealth was his cash purchase of a half-million dollar home. His cover: that his wife’s parents in Colombia (who were of good social standing but not particularly rich) gave him the money.
Ames continued to funnel out information to the KGB. The infamous climax of his betrayal of the US occurred when he revealed the names of every US spy in the Soviet Union, resulting in the deaths of ten people. The US lost all of its inside ‘human’ information in the Soviet Union at that point.
Ames had a long run of spying. He was only caught because he flaunted his wealth. Even after the Soviets arrested and executed the recruited Russian spies, the CIA still had no idea who the mole was. Through careful detective work, the CIA was able to show that Ames was responsible. He betrayed his friends and country for money, resulting in a lifetime prison sentence. He wasn’t executed because the CIA prefers to make deals to fix the ‘holes’ in their system.
Bessette reasoned that anyone could be a spy. Being in a position to acquire classified information, like Ames was, is not a necessity. From a janitor to a Congressman who sold secrets to the Soviets that he copied from the New York Times (and was paid for), anyone can be a spy; through the tour we got to learn a little bit more about the different kinds of people who spy. The tour was an amazing way to learn what intelligence gathering (spying) is, what effects spies can have (good and bad), and about the different places around Capitol Hill that have close connections with intelligence gathering.
The “Spies of Capitol Hill” tour is just one of a series of educational and fun tours that the United States Capitol Historical Society runs several times a year for its members. For more information on this fall’s remaining tours and to become a member, visit our website.