Tracking traitor forged lasting bond between 2 CIA womenWASHINGTON — Inside the Reston, Va., nursing home, the 80-year-old CIA pioneer was dying of cancer. Her best friend and former colleague sat in a nearby chair and tended to her needs.
By: IAN SHAPIRA, The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Inside the Reston, Va., nursing home, the 80-year-old CIA pioneer was dying of cancer. Her best friend and former colleague sat in a nearby chair and tended to her needs.
Sandy Grimes, who’d once hunted a notorious Cold War mole with Jeanne Vertefeuille, adjusted her friend’s pillow. She helped her count past 20. She fed Vertefeuille meals, making sure to serve dessert first and that the pudding came with whipped cream. Grimes also read her a stream of get-well cards, many from colleagues at the CIA. There, the women made history. There, they helped bring down one of Langley’s most elusive traitors, Aldrich “Rick” Ames.
“I felt an obligation to be there with her,” recalled Grimes, 67, of Great Falls, Va. “I can’t imagine not doing it. I was the one Jeanne would accept. I owed it to her as a friend.”
Even before they helped identify the CIA officer-turned-Soviet-spy in the early 1990s, Vertefeuille (pronounced VER-teh-fay) and Grimes forged a bond.
They met at the male-dominated agency, where Vertefeuille began her career as a typist in 1954 and rose to become a counterintelligence expert and, in the words of Acting Director Michael J. Morell, “a true CIA icon.” Grimes joined the agency right out of college 13 years later, and the two women became close as they investigated the disappearance of at least eight Soviet assets in the 1980s. It was a hunt that led to Ames, who was convicted of espionage in 1994.
So when Vertefeuille’s cancer was diagnosed last summer — just as she and Grimes were finishing a memoir about the Ames case called “Circle of Treason” — Grimes became her caregiver. By the fall, Grimes moved the intensely private Vertefeuille, who never married or had kids and was working as a CIA contractor before her illness, into a nursing home.
For the next three months, until Vertefeuille died Dec. 29, Grimes visited her daily at the Cameron Glen Health and Rehab Center. She brought the mail from Vertefeuille’s McLean, Va., apartment, down the street from the CIA, where Vertefeuille mentored female officers and passed along “her tremendous knowledge to current and future counterintelligence officers until the very last day she was in the office,” said Jennifer Youngblood, an agency spokeswoman.
Grimes delivered cards from CIA colleagues and read them aloud to Vertefeuille.
“Dearest Jeanne,” one woman wrote, “You have always been my most admired role model ever since I learned of your professional prowess. I know I join a very large group of your colleagues and friends who miss you greatly and are praying for your return to health AND MOST likely for your return to the office!!!”
The celebrated intelligence officer — known for wearing sneakers and turtlenecks to the office — simply listened and said little in response, Grimes said.
“There was one letter from someone whose name I can’t mention. He’s at the agency. He sent a note. It was beautifully written,” Grimes recalled. “I said to Jeanne: ‘That’s very special. He must have thought highly of you.’ And Jeanne said, ‘He had been good to me.’ ”
When they first met at the agency in the mid-1970s, the two women didn’t care for each other that much.
Both were recruited at college, Vertefeuille from the University of Connecticut in 1954, Grimes from the University of Washington in 1967.
Vertefeuille began as a secretary, typing the names of North Korean scientists on small notecards. After the CIA relaxed its restrictions on women’s career paths, she won promotions and became an expert on Soviet intelligence services. (Now, women make up 43 percent of the agency’s fulltime workforce and more than 40 percent of the CIA’s senior leadership positions, including the associate deputy director, two out of four directorate heads and the chief information officer, according to the CIA.)
Grimes, the daughter of parents who’d worked on the Manhattan Project, joined the agency at the urging of an ex-boyfriend who thought she’d make a “perfect spy.” After believing she’d failed a polygraph, Grimes was accepted and assigned to study the Soviet spy system.
Soon, the women began working together. Vertefeuille was Grimes’s boss in an office overlooking the CIA’s main entrance, where they were privy to Soviet state secrets shared by Soviet assets (along with their real names). They bonded over their love for details about the KGB or GRU, the Soviet military intelligence arm. They spoke in sotto voce using cryptonyms that only a handful knew: “Beep” or “Debtor” for the legendary Soviet asset Dmitri Polyakov, who would later be compromised by Ames and executed.