Spying in Moscow part of diplomatic life

By CHARLES MITCHELL   |   April 18, 1987
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MOSCOW -- Soviet snooping at foreign diplomatic missions is considered as much a part of diplomatic life in Moscow as cocktail parties and receptions. So are the protests.

Secretary of State George Shultz's objection to Soviet spying during his visit to Moscow last week is only the latest in a series of U.S. complaints dating back almost three decades.

At times, the spy-vs.-spy battle has an almost comical air as the superpowers devise more and more devious ways to eavesdrop on diplomatic business.

In 1960, the Soviet government presented the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with a gift as a sign of friendship, a U.S. government seal complete with the eagle crest. A microphone was later found hidden in the eagle's beak.

Ever since, the White House and the Kremlin have traded accusations and denials, protests and counterprotests.

The Embassy, a majestic 10-story building on busy Tchaikovsky Street near the Moscow River, has a long history of security lapses and penetration by Soviet spies.

In one notorious lapse in 1978, a Soviet sailor, Yuri Vlasenko, blew himself up with a homemade bomb in the consular section because his demand to leave the Soviet Union for the United States was refused.

But spy paranoia among American diplomats in Moscow had its first serious outbreak nearly 23 years ago with the discovery of bugging devices inside the Embassy compound.

On May 19, 1964, the State Department, through Ambassador Foy Kohler, issued a 'strong formal protest' after more than 40 listening devices were discovered in Embassy walls and ceilings. Some dated back to 1952, the year the Soviets reconstructed the Embassy building for the Americans.

All the construction work was done by Russians and U.S. officials were not permitted to inspect the building until they took occupancy.

The rules for construction of the new Embassy in Moscow were different after the 1952 fiasco, but, according to U.S. officials, the results are not.

After a recent visit to Moscow to investigate the Marine sex-for-secrets scandal, Congressmen Dan Mica, D-Fla., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said the current Embassy's security appears to have been compromised. They said the new Embassy nearing completion is just as suspect and probably should be demolished -- at a cost of $140 million.

Spy mania has come and gone almost on a cycle reflecting the state of U.S.-Soviet relations. But in the past 10 years the accusations of Soviet snooping have become a common occurance.

In the late 1970s, it was bombardment by Soviet radiation and microwaves, a fire of suspicious origin that destroyed the Embassy's top floors, and the discovery of an underground tunnel leading from the basement to a KGB listening post in an apartment block across the street.

In the 1980s, it was drugged and blackmailed diplomats, 'spy dust' and now the Marine scandal.

The decade of heightened paranoia about Soviet designs on the Embassy began with the fire of August 1977. The 18-hour blaze gutted the 8th floor and severly damaged the 9th and 10th floors.

In the aftermath of the blaze, during which Soviet firefighters had access to the Embassy, U.S. security officers found hammer marks on a steel safe containing secret documents.

It was around this time that the United States protested the bombardment of the Embassy with microwaves and radiation by the Soviets in an attempt to listen to communications, a charge repeated several times by Washington and always denied by Moscow.

Following the 1977 fire, Soviets workers reconstructed much of the damaged section of the Embassy and in 1978 U.S. Navy engineers discovered evidence of bugging devices in a chimney.

Only nine days later U.S. security officials discovered an underground tunnel, followed it and burst into a neighboring apartment house to find several KGB agents and a room full of sophisticated bugging equipment.

Oddly enough, the Kremlin strongly protested the action, saying the U.S. security men invaded Soviet property.

Perhaps the most celebrated case took place in 198O when military attache Maj. James Holbrook said he was drugged and apparently compromised sexually while on a visit to the city of Rovno near the Polish border.

U.S. officials said it was a 'classic sexual entrapment' case with the aim of recruiting Holbrook as a spy. Holbrook was later recalled.

The microwave bombardment charges resurfaced in 1983 and were dismissed by the Soviets. Two years later the U.S. Embassy came up with a new twist -- spy dust.

It was claimed the dust, at first thought to cause cancer, was sprinkled by Soviet agents to track American personnel and their contacts with Soviet officials.

U.S. officials said the dust, nitro phenyl pentadine aldehyde, was virtually invisible and was spread on steering wheels, door knobs and other items. The dust would adhere to anyone who touched the items. A person exposed to the dust would then leave traces of it on anything or anyone touched.

After a series of protests, the storm blew over and except for a brief complaint about Soviet agents planting bugs in Embassy typewriters in March 1985, spy mania within the Embassy subsided -- until the uncovering of the U.S. Marine scandal and Shultz's visit to Moscow.

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