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Rooting Out Spies in the US Foreign Service

By Robert J. TepperRobert J. Tepper served as a Foreign Service officer for 20 years. He lives in Portland, Ore. / September 12, 1989



WHEN President Bush was questioned about the Felix Bloch case, he said that perhaps there was a need to improve security and counterintelligence in the Foreign Service. Mr. Bloch, formerly deputy chief of mission (assistant ambassador) in Vienna, has been placed on administrative leave pending investigation of allegations that he spied for the Soviet Union. He has been neither charged nor convicted and therefore must be presumed innocent despite the caravan of FBI agents and reporters who dog his every step.

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The Soviet foreign minister denies that Bloch ever worked for the USSR. Nevertheless, the incident raises questions about the security of embassies and consulates, as well as the loyalty of Foreign Service officers.

In the country's 200-year history, Bloch is the only Foreign Service officer ever suspected of spying. (Alger Hiss was not a Foreign Service officer and was convicted of perjury.) This is noteworthy, since every other overseas agency of the government - the CIA, the super-secret National Security Agency, Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps - has had in recent years at least one member charged and convicted of espionage.

The USSR, with its intense fetish for security and with many KGB agents assigned to its overseas posts, has suffered many defectors from both its foreign service and the KGB. Similarly, the British, French, West Germans, and other governments have experienced proven cases of espionage on the part of their diplomats.

Most State Department communications and documents do not contain material whose release would seriously injure American security. Much of the traffic involves negotiating positions that eventually will become public or personal assessments on the part of foreign officials that, at most, would cause embarrassment. Military information - weapons capabilities, nuclear targets, etc. - is extremely sensitive. But these are the concern of the Department of Defense, not the State Department.

Foreign Service officers are an elite organization of about 3,500 officers commissioned by the president and approved by the Senate, after a full field investigation. They are the ``eyes and ears'' of government abroad and daily face threats of hostage-taking, assassination, and terrorism. Counterintelligence is designed to neutralize, thwart, or capitalize on the intelligence activities of foreign intelligence services. This means preventing the penetration by a foreign intelligence service of a US Embassy and recruitment of agents among US personnel.

In the United States, the FBI is responsible for counterintelligence. But counterintelligence overseas is extremely difficult under the best of conditions. This was illustrated recently in the US Embassy in Moscow, where at least one marine guard traded sex for secrets. It became known only because a marine revealed it. In the Bloch case, French counterintelligence reportedly provided a video of Bloch handing something to a supposed Soviet agent.

How could the US government perform counterintelligence activities overseas? In both the Bloch and marine cases, it was only by chance that US authorities found out. Can the system be improved? Several possibilities emerge, none of which are very satisfactory or desirable. The CIA could be charged with the duty of conducting surveillance of overseas personnel.

With over 100 Foreign Service posts plus many more military bases, this would be a horrendous task. Moreover, how could CIA agents perform the necessary surveillance in unfriendly countries? Could the CIA recruit agents to perform the surveillance? Equally unsatisfactory. In friendly countries could foreign intelligence services be asked to conduct surveillance of Americans? Should the offices and homes of overseas diplomats be bugged to ascertain their continued loyalty?

There is a reasonable middle ground. Steps seem necessary to verify the continued loyalty of Foreign Service officers. A full background and field investigation when appointed is no guarantee of continued loyalty. People change over the years. On the other hand, we must avoid at all costs any repetition of the McCarthy era when loyal Foreign Service officers were accused without any evidence.

With the thaw in US-Soviet relations, this is hardly the time to make it difficult for US diplomats to engage in fruitful discussion with their Soviet counterparts.

A personal security review upon return from each overseas assignment seems to be in order. This would require a complete and confidential financial disclosure of all assets and liabilities including foreign accounts. A personal interview with a panel of experienced senior officers would also seem appropriate. Finally, a judicious administration of a lie-detector test should not be ruled out, despite the distaste many have for these tests.

Returning CIA personnel are routinely polygraphed. The tests are done not only as a direct counterintelligence tool but for the secondary purpose of gaining admission of immoral but not necessarily illegal conduct that a foreign government could use as blackmail.

Every Foreign Service officer's commission is signed by the president, confirmed by the Senate, and bears the words, ``Reposing special trust and confidence in your integrity, prudence, and ability ... '' A periodic, judicious reexamination of this ``trust'' should be accepted by each Foreign Service officer as a condition of continuing service.