Washington — The retiring head of the Marine Corps speculates that a general breakdown in the morals of American youth may have been part of the cause of the Marine guard spy scandal at the United States Embassy in Moscow. Gen. Paul X. Kelley says he came to this conclusion in his ``agonizing'' over how the scandal could have occurred, and he worries that moral deterioration among Americans of military service age ``could become an epidemic.''
Among the reasons for stunted moral growth in today's young people, General Kelley says, are the television images of burning flags and other Vietnam War protests they were bombarded with when toddlers. Watergate, with its examples of duplicity in high places, was another formative lesson.
Kelley also blames the lack of religion in public schools, and working mothers.
``Many children are not getting the upbringing they need at home,'' he said in an interview with defense reporters.
One solution might be an institute where scholars could promote the study of patriotic values, says the Marine commandant, who retires at the end of the month after more than 37 years in uniform.
Never known for his reticence, Kelley has become more outspoken as his career draws to a close. In a valedictory speech earlier this month he blasted members of Congress who believe defense can be had ``on the cheap'' and reporters who have a ``lynch-mob mentality.''
In recent weeks the legal case against the Moscow Marine guards accused of espionage has apparently begun to unravel. A star witness, Cpl. Robert Williams, has recanted his testimony, saying he was forced into concocting stories by military investigators. Spy charges against one key defendant, Cpl. Arnold Bracy, have been dropped. Corporal Williams is now being charged with lying under oath. Only Sgt. Clayton Lonetree is still to face trial for espionage.
While admitting that the guard case has suffered for lack of corroborative evidence, Kelley says that its end result will be positive. If nothing else, it has caused the Marines to think long and hard about foiling the KGB.
``The end result will be a much tighter security system,'' he claims.
A panel of 12 officers is now touring embassies studying what needs to be done. Admission procedures for the guard program have already been stiffened, Kelley adds.
He bristles at a suggestion that experienced private guards might be a better at providing embassy internal security than young marines.
``I've seen some of that sort of civilian,'' he says, ``and I wouldn't want them protecting my embassy.''
Kelley claims the spy scandal has had little effect on Corps morale. He says that in his speaking tours of the country, he has found that ``the image of the Corps in mid-America is not tarnished.''
In remarks on other subjects, Kelley says:
The US is taking a prudent risk in escorting Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf.
``There's a prevailing attitude in this country that we shouldn't even consider military operations because of the risk, and that's bad,'' he says.
He has no problem with Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North's invocation of Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination, in uniform, in front of congressional committees.
``That's his right. I do believe he will come forward'' and eventually tell his side of the Iran-contra story, Kelley says.