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Getting the Bugs Out

Former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger proposes that the United States partly demolish and rebuild its bug-infested Moscow embassy. He advises Congress to refit the new embassy’s top three floors for sensitive security, and to allow only non-classified business on its lower five floors (which would remain penetrated with listening devices). He further suggests that the United States build an ultra-secure, six-story annex next to the embassy. Because Schlesinger’s plan has two key weaknesses, Congress should not rush to adopt it.

First, his scheme does not adequately respond to the disparity between U.S. and Soviet spy technology. True, America has already spent a great deal of time and money on the new embassy. And the Soviets are pushing to get into their new embassy in Washington, which they cannot do until the Americans occupy theirs in Moscow. But Schlesinger’s ideas bow to these practical considerations more than they follow security needs. In deciding the new embassy’s fate, it is Congress’ task to strike the proper balance between expediency and security. And until the United States understands the Soviets’ eavesdropping abilities, it cannot be absolutely certain of the embassy’s security.

Second, Schlesinger’s construction plans not only depend too heavily on Soviet cooperation but also overstate the likelihood of such cooperation. Schlesinger sees Soviet assistance coming as part of an arms-control deal. The Soviets may indeed admit an American construction crew, but not as a result of those negotiations. Their consent will probably come in exchange for some new project at their embassy that would allow them to install more high-technology listening devices in Washington.

Schlesinger’s testimony, however, describes most candidly how this country’s judgment errors left its embassy in jeopardy. He admits that the United States completely underestimated, and has yet to understand, Moscow’s most recent developments in spy technology. He also tells of how U.S. construction practices needlessly exposed the embassy to security violations. At this point it seems unwise to authorize nine new floors in addition to the five bugged floors that remain. Congress has prudently asked to restrict construction on diplomatic facilities overseas until the State Department develops a safe, coherent approach to foreign construction projects. The Schlesinger proposals do not yet constitute such an approach.

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