Written by Douglas Martin and Originally Published in the New York Times on January 11, 2013
Jeanne Vertefeuille joined the CIA as a typist in 1954 and then began inching up through the ranks, obtaining postings overseas. By 1986 she had become a midlevel expert on the Soviet Union and counterintelligence. She remained a quiet agency soldier, however — purposefully nondescript and selflessly dedicated. She lived alone and walked to work.
But if she was a gray figure at the agency, Ms. Vertefeuille was also a tenacious and effective one, and in October 1986 was asked to lead a task force to investigate the disappearance of Russians whom the C.I.A. had hired to spy against their own country.
Almost eight years later, the investigation led to the unmasking of a C.I.A. employee, Aldrich Ames, as one of the most notorious traitors in American history. He had sold out the Russian agents — at least eight were executed — for millions in cash. His downfall was in no small part owed to Ms. Vertefeuille (pronounced VER-teh-fay), who brought to the mission a deep knowledge of Soviet spycraft and of her own agency’s workings.
She died on Dec. 29 at age 80. In announcing her death, Michael Morell, the acting director of the C.I.A., called Ms. Vertefeuille “uniquely suited for the job” and described her as “a true C.I.A. icon.” Some compared her work on the Ames case to that of Connie Sachs, the brilliant researcher for British intelligence in John le Carré’s spy novels.
Sandra Grimes, a C.I.A. veteran who also worked on the case, said Ms. Vertefeuille had died of a malignant brain tumor at a nursing home in the Washington area, declining to be more specific. “Jeanne was one of the most private people you can ever, ever imagine,” she said.
Ms. Vertefeuille’s role in the investigation began in 1986 when, as station chief in Gabon, she received a cryptic cable to return to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va. From May through December 1985, she was told, Soviet spies working as American double agents had disappeared at an alarming rate. She was to lead a small task force to investigate, initially composed of two women and two men and later to be joined by Ms. Grimes.
The journalist David Wise wrote in his 1995 book “Nightmover: How Aldrich Ames Sold the C.I.A. to the K.G.B. for $4.6 Million” that women had been chosen for the unit because their bosses felt that women would have more patience in combing through records. He also suggested that relatively low-ranking officials like Ms. Vertefeuille and the others were selected because the agency was operating on the presumption that no C.I.A. colleague could be a traitor.
“The C.I.A. thought it had picked a minor leaguer,” Mr. Wise said of Ms. Vertefeuille in an interview with Time magazine, “but she proved she was good enough for the majors. In the end, she got Ames.”
The investigators did not immediately seize on the idea that a Soviet double agent, or “mole,” was operating inside the agency; it seemed just as likely to them that somebody outside the agency was intercepting communications. But there was a mole.
Mr. Ames, the son of a C.I.A. officer, had worked as an agency file clerk as a teenager. In September 1983, he was appointed head of counterintelligence in the Soviet division. Two years later, struggling financially, he realized his job gave him something of immense value to Moscow: the names of Soviet agents spying for the United States. He began his treachery by selling two names for $50,000, he later said.
As he fed Moscow names and the spies started vanishing, Mr. Ames said, he complained to his Soviet handler. “Why not put a big neon sign over the agency with the word ‘Mole’ written on it?” he recalled saying.
Ms. Vertefeuille’s team struggled with the investigation for years. Its members began to be pulled away to other assignments part time. Even after it was discovered, in November 1989, that Mr. Ames was living far beyond his means, buying Jaguars and a $540,000 home with no down payment, the hunt stalled.
By early 1991, as Ms. Vertefeuille approached the mandatory retirement age of 60, she felt guilty that she had not solved the case, she recalled in “Circle of Treason: A C.I.A. Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed,” a book she wrote with Ms. Grimes that was published last year. She asked to spend her final months of work on the case.
The breakthrough occurred in August 1992, when Ms. Grimes discovered that large deposits in Mr. Ames’s bank account correlated with his meetings with a Soviet official. The F.B.I. joined the case, finding evidence in Mr. Ames’s garbage and computer, and arrested him on Feb. 21, 1994. He pleaded guilty and is serving a life sentence in federal prison.
Jeanne Ruth Vertefeuille, an only child, was born in New Haven on Dec. 23, 1932. She majored in history and studied German and French at the University of Connecticut, graduating in 1954. She became interested in the C.I.A. at a job fair, she wrote; she thought it would be fun to travel in Europe. At the agency’s urging, she attended secretarial school before joining.
Her foreign posts included Ethiopia, Finland and The Hague. She learned Russian and became an expert on Soviet spies. Mr. Wise wrote that Ms. Vertefeuille could identify a K.G.B. colonel who had appeared in Copenhagen under one name as the same official who turned up in New Delhi with a different name a decade later. She worked as a C.I.A. consultant until last summer. She never married or had children and leaves no immediate survivors.
In a debriefing after his arrest, Mr. Ames told his interrogators that when K.G.B. officials had asked for the name of a C.I.A. official whom they might plausibly frame as a mole, he said he gave them Ms. Vertefeuille’s name, adding that she was the principal mole hunter.
His admission surprised her. “At first, I wanted to jump across the table and strangle him,” Ms. Vertefeuille said. “But then I started laughing. It really was funny, because he was the one in shackles, not me.”