Washington — If spy novelist John Le Carr'e were an architect, the elegant four-story stone and brick building at 1125 16th Street here might be his creation. The windows are concealed behind tightly closed gray shutters. Surveillance cameras point in every direction. A large antenna and other electronic devices sprout from the roof. Standing on the sidewalk in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington, one gets the uneasy feeling of being closely watched from all angles by concealed eyes -- both Soviet and American.
Six years ago, according to court documents, former National Security Agency employee Ronald W. Pelton walked across this same stretch of pavement. He was going into the Soviet Embassy in an apparent last-ditch attempt to fight off bankruptcy.
Last week, a jury in US District Court in Baltimore found Pelton guilty of selling the Soviets top-secret details about United States communications intelligence operations aimed at the Soviet Union. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Despite Pelton's conviction, questions have lingered about the effectiveness of US counterintelligence in the case. Critics have wondered why the government did not nip Pelton's crimes in the bud, especially as American agents actually tape recorded Pelton's telephone call to the Soviet Embassy in January 1980, arranging that first meeting.
(The US government has authority under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to tap telephones, plant electronic ``bugs,'' and intercept various communications in an effort to protect national security from foreign espionage.)
The US eavesdroppers recorded an unidentified man say that he had ``information to discuss'' that the Soviets would find ``very interesting,'' according to court documents. He and Soviet officials agreed to meet the next day, Jan. 15, at the embassy.
Wouldn't such a telephone call trigger intensified surveillance of the Soviet Embassy in an attempt to identify the mystery caller at the time he arrived for the scheduled meeting? Somehow, it did not.
In a recent interview with journalist John McLaughlin, Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Casey said that the US intelligence community had no knowledge of Pelton's five years of espionage until Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko provided US officials with the first clues.
``I didn't know anything about Mr. Pelton until Yurchenko had told us this man had passed information to the Soviet Embassy. And even then we didn't know who he was,'' Mr. Casey said. ``It took us quite a while to identify who he was.''
But Casey stressed: ``Counterintelligence is a very tough job. We do catch a great many spies. We caught more spies last year than we have ever before in any one year.''
Indeed, the recent record indicates that US counterintelligence is getting better at catching spies. The string of convicted or accused spies uncovered by the US last year includes Soviet spy John A. Walker Jr. and two members of his family, Chinese spy Larry Wu-Tai Chin, Israeli spy Jonathan Jay Pollard, suspected Soviet spy and fugitive Edward Howard, and accused Soviet spy Jerry A. Whitworth, who currently is on trial in San Francisco.
At least two important factors have contributed to the greater effectiveness of US counterintelligence. For one thing, the recent number of spy cases has heightened awareness by the administration and Congress of the espionage threat. This has sparked larger investment in counterintelligence in both money and personnel.
Also, new US laws have enabled the government to prosecute spies while lessening the potential for further damage to national security from disclosures of classified information in open court.
Even the specific snafu that allowed Pelton to enter the Soviet Embassy undetected appears to have been ironed out. Last December, according to court documents, a man telephoned the Soviet military mission in Washington. The caller identified himself only as ``Dano'' and arranged a meeting.
US counterintelligence agents intercepted the call, and agents were dispatched to watch the Soviet office. Roughly a half-hour after the phone call, the caller was photographed entering the Soviet office.
The man was quickly identified as Randy M. Jeffries, a Capitol Hill messenger with access to top-secret congressional hearing transcripts. Six days later Jeffries was arrested and charged with trying to sell classified information to the Soviets. Today, he is serving a three-year jail term.