In the murky, unpublicized tug of war between Soviet spies and United States counterintelligence agents, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is employing a special weapon: prevention. It is aimed at undermining what the FBI maintains is a dedicated Soviet effort to recruit Americans as spies. And it is relatively unglamorous.
``Most of the work in foreign counterintelligence is prevention,'' an FBI official says.
He notes that all government employees, as well as workers at about 14,000 US defense contracting companies, have been briefed by FBI and other security officials in recent years on the threat posed by Soviet espionage.
During the same period, the official says, there has been a ``steady increase'' in funds and manpower for counterintelligence efforts. The FBI has primary responsibility for domestic counterintelligence. Following the period of d'etente in the early 1970s, the Soviet intelligence presence in the US is said to have been greatly expanded, and the FBI stepped up efforts to counter it.
US officials cannot predict how many Americans might already be working for the Soviets. But the recent disclosure of the espionage ring allegedly managed for some 20 years by former Navy communications specialist John A. Walker Jr. has heightened concern within the defense and intelligence communities as well as in Congress. They wonder who is winning the KGB-FBI battle for those few Americans who might be vulnerable to recruitment as Soviet spies.
Intelligence experts say the days are gone when the Soviets primarily sought out American communists or socialists who had become disenchanted with the US government. Today, they note, the Soviets often need only play a covert version of ``The Price Is Right'' to lure some Americans into betraying their country.
``It must give the Soviets a very cynical view of the [US] society -- that they are able to find so many people who are willing to sell them the country's secrets for cash,'' Adm. Bobby R. Inman, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), told a television interviewer recently.
Adm. Stansfield Turner, CIA director in the Carter administration, says he is also troubled by another factor that has led some Americans to spy for the Soviets. He calls them ``people who spy for kicks . . . people who read John le Carr'e and want to become [Ian Fleming's fictional Agent] 007.'' He notes that it's much harder for US counterintelligence agents to spot such James Bond fantasists.
Admiral Inman and others have suggested that the US makes it too easy for the Soviets here. He has recommended, among other measures, increasing further the number of FBI counterintelligence agents assigned to watch the roughly 1,000 Soviet and East-bloc diplomats known or suspected to be spy recruiters. He says this would be more practical than attempting to watch closely the estimated 4.3 million Americans with regular access to classified information.
Admiral Turner says the country's classification system -- in which documents are labeled confidential, secret, or top secret -- ``is in absolute chaos.'' He says a more rigorous declassification system is needed to help officials protect true secrets. He also advocates cutting the number of government officials with security clearances by 40 percent.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia has suggested, likewise, that a reduction in the numbers of those with security clearances might help security personnel to monitor current employees better through background checks and interviews.
Ultimately, US security personnel look roughly for the same telltale traits among government employees as those the Soviets are looking for.
According to an FBI manual on counterintelligence, ``[Soviet] intelligence officers and their agents are constantly in contact with Americans and are evaluating them as potential recruitment targets.''
If an American shows potential for development as a Soviet agent, the manual says, the Soviets may use one of several techniques, including offering large sums of money, reaching out to disgruntled employees, or even using blackmail after getting a potential recruit into a compromising position.
Experts say recruitment is usually a subtle, gradual process involving a growing friendship between the Soviet ``control agent'' and the recruit. Eventually the recruit is asked to provide an innocuous document to the Soviet friend as an innocent favor. Money is offered in return. Later more requests are made for less and less innocuous documents. And a spy is born.
Part of the concern at the FBI is that Americans are naive about the KGB and spying in general and might be tempted to try it for a sense of adventure.
``There is a common notion,'' the FBI manual says, ``that the KGB is staffed with crude Russians, who have bushy eyebrows, wear baggy suits, and speak with thick accents. Nothing could be further from the truth.''
``They [Soviet spies] are some of the slickest people you've seen in your life,'' an FBI official says.
Christopher Boyce, who is currently serving a 68-year sentence in federal prison for selling the Soviets highly sensitive information in the mid-1970s about US spy satellites, agrees with the FBI that most Americans are naive about espionage.
``There is a whole generation of Americans who are coming on who have a view of espionage that is just totally false . . . and I think the entertainment industry really pushes that along,'' Mr. Boyce told a Senate committee hearing in April.
Boyce, whose case was portrayed in a nonfiction book and later in a motion picture called ``The Falcon and the Snowman,'' told the committee that even government security briefings about espionage tend to glamorize it.
In testimony described by Senate aides as moving, Boyce almost appeared to be making an FBI commercial warning against the dangers of spying for the Soviets. ``There was no excitement, there was no thrill. There was only depression and a hopeless enslavement to an inhuman, uncaring foreign bureaucracy.''
He added: ``I would suspect that there are hundreds of other Americans out of the 4 million with security clearances who have given serious thought to espionage. Those are the people that you must seek out and reach with the truth.'' -- 30 --