Government conduct

Governments are at it again. This time it's the Soviet, British, and French governments that stand accused, in very different situations, of highly questionable activities. The actions variously invade the privacy of individuals, and put the intrusive hand of government into situations in which it does not belong. Westerners, with the advantage of living in the free world, are prone to view their governments as generally trustworthy, despite foibles. Yet two of the cases involve Western governments. Westerners have a right to expect better of their elected governments.

So, ultimately, do citizens of other countries that, like the Soviet Union, now routinely violate the privacy and freedom of their citizens, qualities that Westerners often take for granted.

The issue involving the Soviet Union in some ways is the most puzzling, not because of naivet'e about the USSR's activities but because of the timing of the release of information.

The United States says it has known since the 1970s that the Soviets have used a chemical powder to track American officials and journalists in the Soviet Union; yet only now is the information being made public. The powder is identified as a mutagen, with possible adverse health effects.

The powder allegation seems part of the current propaganda barrage both the Soviet Union and the United States are unleashing as they seek advantage going into the Gorbachev-Reagan summit meeting three months hence.

At the same time, if a serious health issue has been adjudged to exist, why was the issue not raised years ago?

The Soviet use of tracer powder is one minuscule element in the elaborate and often-dangerous game of espionage and counterespionage that nations play. It leads the reader to wonder what activities are engaged in by the United States and other nations that might also cause a furor if they became known.

What also has become known this week is that since 1937 the British Broadcasting Corporation has permitted Britain's internal security service to screen present or potential employees for security risks. The screening, which had been secret, is reported to have resulted over the years in several persons being turned down for positions or promotions.

The BBC is state owned, but its charter gives it independence from government interference. Over the decades the agency has built up a well-deserved reputation for journalistic integrity.

That reputation will hardly be strengthened by revelation of the secret screenings, coming as it does on top of the BBC decision earlier this month to cancel a TV documentary on Northern Ireland after the Thatcher government complained that it would give ``succor'' to terrorists.

The tangled skein of yarn in the French case is unraveling, but all the snarls are not yet out. New Zealand police now say that one of the two people held in the bombing and sinking, in Auckland, of the flagship of the Greenpeace environmental organization turns out to be a captain in the French Army. Authorities say that when arrested she gave a false name.

French newspapers have said that she works for France's espionage agency, and that the man arrested with her is a French Army officer; neither assertion has been confirmed.

The timing of the bombing happened to coincide with the preparations of the ship to sail for the site in the Pacific Ocean where France shortly would test nuclear explosions; those aboard had planned to watch and protest the tests.

Allegations of possible Gallic complicity in the bombing fly in the French political arena, with the government's report on the case soon to be made public. French President Mitterrand has promised to punish anyone it implicates.

No government can be expected to be absolutely flawless. But the Soviet and British activities are improper; and if France's officialdom was involved in the sinking of the ship that, too, would be wrong.

One of the great advantages of living in a democracy is that avenues exist for citizens to get government policies changed. If pressure on current officeholders does not work, there is the ultimate pressure: Vote in a new government. Would that all the world's people had the same opportunities. ----30--{et

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