Washington — Call it embassy spy war - the constant superpower struggle to penetrate each other's diplomatic compounds. It is a contest in which the United States has not been doing well. Eavesdropping devices planted in the new US Embassy in Moscow are probably not everyday bugs. They are apparently what one expert calls ``hard-wired'' equipment: difficult to put in, impossible to eradicate.
``No apparatus could defeat such a device,'' says Harry Augenblick, president of Microlab/FXR, a maker of antibug electronics.
Soviet vigilance guarded closely against placing of corresponding bugs in new Soviet buildings in Washington.
``They made it clear that the contractor was not to do any concealed work without the Soviets' review and approval,'' says Guido Gerlitz, project manager of the US architectural firm that designed the Soviet embassy compound.
Some lawmakers are steamed over this security situation. One bill introduced April 8, sponsored by Republican Sen. William Roth Jr. of Delaware, would kick the Soviets out of their hilltop Washington compound if the Kremlin does not agree to relocate, or clean up, the US Moscow complex.
If all the US had to worry about were conventional listening devices, cleanup would not be an insurmountable problem. Today's usual bugs are tiny and prone to cunning disguises; it is easy to make them look like picture hooks, say security consultants.
But most contain something that can give them away: transmitters. The miniaturized electronics necessary to broadcast information are easily detectable by microwave-beaming, antibug sweepers.
US officials' description of the security problem in Moscow, however, leads Mr. Augenblick to say that the bugs there must be of a different stripe. They seem to be hard-wired, he says, nothing more than a tiny mike on the end of a long wire embedded in the building's structure. The wires themselves could not be located if they were cast in steel or concrete, or hidden in a power or phone cable. They would lead to an outside listening post, eliminating the need for the tiny tell-tale transmitter.
Such bugs ``are the only thing that would require tearing down the building'' to eliminate them, says Augenblick. Several members of Congress have said the security situation at the Moscow embassy is so bad it must be bulldozed.
Under a 1972 agreement, the Soviet contractor assigned to construct the US Embassy was able to make building components off-site without any supervision. Bugs could easily have been planted.
Construction of the Soviet Embassy in the US, on the other hand, took place under tight oversight. Basic fabrication was done by an American firm using US-made materials, but Soviet representatives were there every step of the way.
Project manager Gerlitz says Soviet inspectors watched as concrete was poured and glass installed. They used X-ray machines to examine steel beams and marble cladding.
``The inspector would sit right on the scaffold with the workers,'' says Gerlitz.
Instead of buying prefabricated components the Soviets went to the extra expense of having components assembled at the construction site, shunning pre-assembled windows and even precast concrete now routinely used in building construction.
``They knew exactly what they wanted. Their specifications were very tight. They were very thorough,'' Gerlitz says.
The Soviet complex is located on the site of an old Veterans Administration hospital in northwest Washington. It is one of the highest spots in the city, an excellent spot to peer down on the White House and Pentagon. More important, it is almost perfectly located for electronic eavesdropping on US phone calls, as it is close to AT&T's main Washington microwave relay, Western Union's Tenleytown microwave tower, and the antennas of the Naval Security Station.
State Department officials say that when the decision was made in the late 1960s to let the Soviets have the site, no one thought about the advantages the location would offer.