Spy Panic

The news is full of spy cases, creating considerable worry about the nation's legitimate secrets and how to protect them. Unfortunately, Congress is reacting hysterically with quick-fix solutions that do not promise to stop the spying but do pose a serious threat to basic civil liberties.

Last month the House of Representatives voted to create a lie-detector program for the Defense Department that would allow the tests to be given randomly to 4.3 million people with secret clearances--military and civilians alike. The Senate has approved a test program for 3,500 workers, and congressional conferees are currently working on a compromise polygraph program that both houses can live with. This interest in lie detectors echoes the Reagan Administration's longstanding desire for spot tests for thousands of federal employees.

Lost in the furor is the fact that lie detectors are unreliable. They may cast suspicion on people whose loyalty should not be suspect, and they may fail to catch people who have been coached on how to fool them. In the process, hundreds of thousands of people would be subjected to these tests even though there is not a shred of evidence that those people are involved in espionage or any other illegal activity. What's more, given the government's inability to manage the current security-clearance program, there is little likelihood that it could effectively do more.

Also brewing in Congress is an effort to make espionage by members of the military a capital crime. The House voted by a 3-1 margin this month to reinstitute the death penalty for members of the armed forces convicted of spying. What is to be gained by such a measure? Would it deter those bent on selling out their country? Not likely. Spies don't expect to be caught, and the recent evidence is that they have good reason not to. If they expected to be caught, they wouldn't spy in the first place, knowing that life imprisonment awaits them.

If the death penalty were enacted for spying, it would require a heavy burden of proof on the part of the government to persuade a jury that the compromised secrets were so important and so damaging that they warranted capital punishment. The trouble is that the government doesn't like to divulge all that in court, which would reveal yet more sensitive information and confirm to unfriendly powers that they had really got something useful. The death penalty is an emotional but not a practical solution for spying.

What, then, should be done? The basic problem in protecting secrets is that there are too many of them, and too many people authorized to know them. Both the amount of classified material and the number of people with clearances need to be drastically reduced. In addition, the government's clearance procedures need to be overhauled. Nowadays spies appear to be motivated by money, not by ideology. But background checks continue to focus on past political associations.

The alarming thing about the case of former submariner John A. Walker Jr. and his clan is how long they allegedly got away with spying and the failure of the security apparatus to spot what was going on. If fewer people had secret clearances, it would be be easier to keep tabs on what they were doing. And if the FBI had more experts in counterintelligence, it would be more effective in limiting security breaches.

Simple solutions to complicated problems are almost always wrong. Congress should not allow itself to be swept up in the frenzy of the recent spy cases and to pass the wrong legislation. There are indeed some secrets that need protecting, but the measures now before Congress would not do the job, and would unnecessarily intrude on the freedoms that our country cherishes.

process breaches an agreement by the American government to postpone the imposition of restrictions on Japanese fishing vessels in U.S. waters. Faced with a choice between fish and whales, Japan almost certainly would do what Moscow did and choose fish.

The International Whaling Commission has now put North Atlantic minke whales on the protected list. That will probably bring the third major whaling nation, Norway, to accept the moratorium.

There remain some troubling whaling operations. South Korea and Iceland, for example, are asserting a right to take as many as 200 whales a year for scientific purposes, but there is a good chance that the commission will complete more restrictive rules for scientific catches at its meeting next June in Sweden.

The moratorium will assure the survival of most species. For some it may already be too late to prevent extinction. A scientific study of stocks will be completed by 1990, providing a better picture of the situation. There is good reason to believe that it will confirm both the wisdom of the moratorium and the desirability of making it permanent.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World