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David Wise
Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the CIA to the KGB for $4.6 Million
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-060-17198-8
Publication Date: 06-18-1995
357 pages; $25.00
Date Reviewed: 04-02-1996, 10-20-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Non-Fiction  Mystery

It's easy to turn a great traitor into a romantic hero. The business of spying lends itself to extravagance, to sweeping gestures, to bold figures making strong statements in a hail of bullets. But the great traitor of the late twentieth century, Aldrich Ames, is also the great exception. In 'Nightmover', David Wise traces Ames' story, revealing the great traitor as nothing much more than an insecure file clerk with the keys to the office and an axe to grind. 'Nightmover' is frightening in the very ordinariness of its story, in the everyday nature of the greed that led to dozens of deaths.

Starting with his arrest in 1994, 'Nightmover' jumps back and then traces, in roughly chronological order, Ames' career in the CIA. He was no James Bond. Instead, he worked quietly in an office and might have been selling insurance. He led a life of Kafkaesque service as a mid-level bureaucrat in an enterprise that had lost track of its own dimensions.

In hindsight, of course, it's all crystal clear. The only guy with a 40K$ Jaguar in the parking lot was moonlighting for the KGB and its military equivalent, the GRU. Wise, a veteran investigative reporter who has covered the US intelligence for 20 years, is able to get behind the anonymous clerk's face, and show the frustrated employee who stepped onto a slippery slope and never returned.

Wise jumps around his own timeline a bit much, and those totally unfamiliar with the affair will take a little while to acclimatize to his narrative style. But once the main characters of the drama — Ames, and his wife Rosario — begin to come to life, things quickly and inevitably fall together. In his first deal, Ames told himself he was scamming the Russians, selling them information they already had. Eventually, he began to deliver a steady grab bag of secrets he began to deliver, and reap the rewards. But as the leaks grew more and more dangerous, his colleagues were able to trace and capture the unlikely villain.

Along the way, Wise makes it quite clear that there was ample warning to anybody with eyes and the slightest concern that something bad was happening in Rick Ames' life. He was habitually and embarrassingly drunk, a condition most of his co-workers tolerated and covered up. He was driving an expensive car, had paid for a huge house with cash, and explained both vaguely as either the rewards of wise investment, or gifts from his mother-in-law. Like many in his position, his most difficult task was to keep his lies straight — and he wasn't even able to do that competently.

Just as fascinating as Ames' downfall is the process of finding the mole, a search that lasted for nearly eight years. Along the way talented agents are ignored or sidestepped, office politics torpedo hot leads and different sections of the enormous CIA bureaucracy manage to hold out on one another, thus losing the chance of catching the mole.

As the picture comes together, slowly, inevitably, it becomes clear to both those in pursuit of him and the reader that Rick Ames was not as much a "double agent super-spy" as he was a bureaucrat gone bad. In 'Nightmover', Wise dissects a case of high-level espionage and finds within not a tale of daring escapades, but the mendacity of a system so ineffective that it does not know, or will not admit, when it is fatally ill.

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