State Department and Pentagon investigators have questioned almost 500 people--some of them probable espionage suspects--in a widening investigation touched off by the arrest of a former Moscow embassy guard.
Administration officials said the probe, the most extensive ever directed at U.S. embassies and consulates, has identified a pattern of efforts by hostile intelligence services to penetrate U.S. diplomatic missions in Eastern Europe, China, Nicaragua and some other Marxist-ruled countries in addition to the Soviet Union.
Techniques Well Known
Many of the espionage techniques used against American diplomats and personnel have been well known for years, the officials said, but the latest investigation has given new impetus to security measures that in the past were sometimes considered too expensive or too cumbersome.
Robert E. Lamb, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, revealed the scope of the investigation in an interview this week.
"We are doing a very thorough investigation," Lamb said. "Between us and the Naval Investigative Service and other agencies in town we have probably talked to close to 500 people at this point, some of them are simply exploratory interviews, some of them are interrogations and some of them are clearly investigative. It all stems from the Moscow-Leningrad experiences."
He declined to predict how many other people might be charged with crimes.
So far, two Marine embassy guards have been charged with espionage. Sgt. Clayton Lonetree and Cpl. Arnold Bracy, both of whom served in Moscow, are accused of accepting sexual favors from Soviet women and allowing KGB agents access to sensitive areas of the embassy. A third Marine, Sgt. John Weirick, who served in Leningrad, is being held on suspicion of spying.
U.S. officials said intelligence agencies in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Poland, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and probably other countries are continuously targeting U.S. missions with sophisticated eavesdropping devices and maintain full-time programs aimed at recruiting U.S. embassy employees for espionage. Moreover, the buildings housing many U.S. diplomatic missions are considered virtually impossible to defend from electronic surveillance.
Soviets: A Known Threat
"The Soviet Union is the most hostile place," Lamb said. "There is nowhere else in the world where we are targeted as aggressively, as systematically and as consistently as in the Soviet Union. But it is easier in some ways to deal with that because we know about it and we expect it.
"We have some really serious problems . . . where the environment is much less oppressive--a country like Hungary, for example," he said. "It is sometimes harder to keep your guard up when the climate is warmer and the (intelligence) service is more subtle."
While Congress and the Administration try to decide if the new U.S. Embassy under construction in Moscow should be torn down because it is riddled with secret listening devices, many U.S. diplomatic missions operate out of aging buildings that are vulnerable to increasingly sophisticated electronic surveillance techniques.
Finds Missions Vulnerable
A commission headed by Adm. Bobby R. Inman, a former deputy director of the CIA, determined in 1985 that 126 U.S. diplomatic missions--almost half of the worldwide total of 262--were dangerously susceptible to attacks by terrorists, penetration by electronic surveillance or both.
"A lot of our buildings are 50 or more years old; a lot of them are just rented space in other buildings," Lamb said. "This just invites technical security problems." He said Congress has been reluctant to appropriate enough money to correct the security deficiencies identified by the Inman panel, despite its high level of indignation over the hidden microphones at the unfinished embassy in Moscow.
"I hope that the Moscow problems will produce the kind of support from the Congress that we need for a substantial program" to protect embassies from electronic eavesdropping, he said.
A Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff member said investigators for the panel discovered last year that the basement of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing was honeycombed with tunnels, including one that led to the embassy of Czechoslovakia. It was not known whether any intrusions had occurred, but officials considered the prospect serious.
Maintain 'Secure' Areas
Every U.S. embassy in the world has at least one "secure" area where foreign employees are not allowed to go and electronic countermeasures are concentrated. State Department officials say that work done in these areas can almost always be kept secret. But, one official said, embassy employees sometimes fail to use the secure area because it is too much trouble.
"A lot of people think they can talk double-talk or they've seen in the movies that you can turn on the bath water (to cover a conversation)--none of that works," said the official, who asked not to be identified by name.
While electronic eavesdropping devices have made quantum leaps in sophistication in recent years, the techniques used to entice people to spy against their countries are unchanged from Mata Hari's time.
"The most lucrative method has been sexual entrapment," Lamb said. The other methods also concentrate on human weaknesses--drugs, alcoholism, ruinous debt and other factors. The State Department tries to avoid hiring people who are susceptible to blackmail, but it is not always successful.
Some Entrapment Succeeds
Although Lamb said that most attempts at sexual entrapment are crude and ultimately ineffective, some, as in the recent Moscow case, invariably succeed. What happens after that can be crucial to U.S. security.
Under a long-standing policy, the State Department takes a rather permissive view of sexual lapses provided they are reported promptly by the employee involved.
"We are all sometimes subject to some human weaknesses," Lamb said. "If it is reported promptly, we may simply take no action other than to tell the employee not to see the woman or the man again.
"If it is the kind of situation where it might be embarrassing to the employee, we will bring him out of the country without prejudice (to his career)," Lamb said. "But if there is any indication that espionage might be involved, the employee would be subjected to an investigation. . . . The number of times when it actually turns into espionage are very, very few."
Random Polygraph Tests
Lamb said that the Marine Corps recently decided to subject embassy guards working in hostile countries to random polygraph examinations. The State Department, however, rejects random lie detector testing, although "voluntary" tests are used in some investigations.
To compensate for limits on polygraphs, Lamb said, the State Department subjects applicants to rigorous background examinations that are repeated every five years if the person is hired.