Washington — The arrest of Nicholas Daniloff on espionage charges has once again underscored the vulnerability of American journalists in the Soviet Union. Mr. Daniloff, a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, is one of some 30 American correspondents accredited in the Soviet capital. All of them tread cautiously through a veritable mine field of potential entrapments, harassments, or embarrassments.
They have no diplomatic immunity, only the scantest protection under international agreements, and no protection whatsoever under Soviet law. Accordingly, caution is not merely a watchword, but a near-obsession for many of the American reporters and news technicians in Moscow. They know that even a temporary lapse in their alertness can have serious consequences.
Daniloff was arrested on charges of espionage after he accepted an envelope from a Soviet citizen. The envelope contained classified maps, some of them stamped ``top secret.'' (Daniloff says he believed the envelope held newspaper clippings.) He is now being held in Moscow's Lefortovo prison by the KGB, the Soviet secret police.
There is no formal, written list of precautions for journalists in Moscow. And the American correspondents there disagree among themselves about the degree of risk-taking that is prudent.
But, by common consent, there are some unwritten rules. Among them:
Don't accept sealed envelopes or packages from Soviet citizens. They could contain unpleasant surprises, as Daniloff learned.
Don't meet ``unofficial'' Soviet sources, friends, or acquaintances in offices, apartments, or cars. All of these places could be ``bugged'' for electronic eavesdropping.
Accordingly, many correspondents prefer long, ambling walks with their sources in public parks or open spaces, where the conversation can be freer. Daniloff was arrested after a walk with a Soviet acquaintance, identified only as ``Misha,'' in the Lenin Hills overlooking Moscow.
Be choosy and guarded about friends and acquaintances, for both your sakes.
American correspondents are routinely sought out by Soviet citizens. Some are disaffected citizens who want to tell their story to someone they think will be sympathetic. Others, however, are provocateurs, with the goal of ensnaring unwary foreigners.
Moreover, a journalist's informants can be turned into informers, given sufficient coercion by the KGB. A Soviet 'emigr'e in the US says his father was pressured by the KGB to ``frame'' Daniloff two years ago, using means strikingly similar to those in the recent events, but the man refused.
Assume that ``chance'' encounters aren't always by chance.
Television reporters who travel are accompanied full-time by ``producers'' from Soviet television who keep track of what they film and whom they see.
The print press is under no such strictures. Still, stories are legion of seemingly random encounters between Soviet citizens and American correspondents that, in retrospect, weren't what they seemed.
A favorite tactic is to assign traveling correspondents a train compartment with Soviet citizens who can embarrass or compromise them. One male correspondent related that on an overnight train to Leningrad, he found his sleeping compartment was shared with a comely blond woman who sought ``comfort and understanding'' for her husband's neglect.
Another male correspondent suspected a similar setup when his train compartment was unexpectedly switched on an overnight ride to Moscow. Thus, he was actually relieved when the upper bunk was occupied by ``Volodya,'' a bright, engaging young man.
Volodya was, it turned out, working for a Young Communist League newspaper, and wrote an unflattering article detailing the encounter.
Daniloff, too, has been the target of harsh articles in the Soviet press. And even now, he is sharing a cell with a Soviet ``mathematician'' who, according to Daniloff's family, is obviously a stukach (government informant) reporting on Daniloff's behavior in confinement.
The writer was the Monitor's correspondent in Moscow for 2 years before his reassignment in June.