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Big Row Over Decrepit Embassy : Ambassador blows top over Congress blowing assignment

Jack F. Matlock Jr., the distinguished professional diplomat who on Sunday ends a 4 1/2-year tenure as ambassador to the Soviet Union, has let fly with a deserved blast at Congress for its thoughtless treatment of the U.S. Embassy staff in Moscow.

In an interview with The Times, Matlock says the failure of the House and Senate to agree on how to replace the superannuated embassy building has literally endangered the lives of scores of dedicated employees. The embassy building, erected as a 10-story apartment house when Nicholas II still ruled as czar of all the Russias, has long been in a state of terminal decrepitude. Four years ago, shocked congressional investigators labeled it a firetrap. Last spring a fire did in fact break out, giving KGB agents a chance to rush into the building alongside Soviet firefighters and carry off unknown amounts of classified materials. That intrusion further dramatized what for decades has been a second major problem with the embassy: It is appallingly vulnerable to Soviet penetration.

Which is why, in the 1970s, construction of a new embassy was approved. Work on that structure was well along when, in 1985, U.S. inspectors discovered the new building to be riddled with Soviet listening devices. Construction ceased. Since then a debate has gone on over whether the embassy should be demolished and rebuilt under strict security measures or whether it should instead be topped off with new floors whose security could be assured.

Both houses of Congress have voted $130 million for new construction. But the Senate wants a structure built from scratch; the House says the Bush Administration ought to pick between that option and simply replacing the top two bugged floors of the building with four new, bug-free ones. That’s the preferred course, because it would make secure facilities available a lot faster. But now, while Congress fiddles, no course can be followed.

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The situation, says Ambassador Matlock, is “absurd.” It is also frustrating, dangerous and nationally humiliating. When Congress returns to work next month it should move quickly to break the ridiculous embassy deadlock it has created.


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