Three months ago, US officials celebrated the defection of Soviet KGB agent Vitaly Yurchenko as the intelligence coup of the decade. Mr. Yurchenko's apparent redefection Monday, accompanied by Soviet charges on Tuesday of US-sponsored ``state terrorism,'' has become a major political embarrassment for the US.
Yesterday, the Soviet Union agreed to permit US authorities to interview Vitaly Yurchenko at the State Department.
Earlier in the day, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Yurchenko would not be permitted to leave the United States until State Department officials could meet with him in ``an environment free of coercion'' to ``satisfy ourselves . . . that these are his real intents.''
State Department and White House sources say the Yurchenko incident, which comes in the wake of two other incidents involving Soviet citizens on US territory, could not have occurred at a less opportune moment.
This week Soviet officials and a United States delegation led by Secretary of State George P. Shultz are meeting in Moscow to put final touches on plans for this month's long-awaited meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
But officials say the diplomatic ruckus raised by the Soviets over the affair is probably calculated to score a public relations victory, not to undermine the Geneva summit meeting.
``It was a blow to them to lose the guy [Yurchenko] in the first place. Now they've got him back and they're crowing,'' says a State Department official. Yurchenko who was the fifth-ranking official in the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service.
In an extraordinary press conference Monday -- that caught US officials completely by surprise -- Yurchenko told reporters that he was ``forcibly abducted'' three months ago in Rome, then drugged and held in forced isolation by the CIA on an estate 20 miles outside Fredericksburg, Va. According to Yurchenko, CIA officials then offered him a contract of $1 million plus an annual living allowance to serve as a ``consultant'' for the CIA.
State Department and White House spokesmen yesterday adhered to Monday's denunciation of Yurchenko's account as ``completely false and without any foundation.''
``At no time was Yurchenko held or coerced,'' says State Department spokesman Charles Redman, adding that Yurchenko's decision to defect to the US was ``genuinely of his own choosing.''
Yurchenko's charges are the latest in a series of diplomatic surprises that have bedeviled planning for the Geneva summit scheduled to begin Nov. 19.
Just two hours before Yurchenko's press conference at the Soviet Embassy on Monday, a five-day standoff over what at first appeared to be a defection of a Soviet soldier who took refuge in the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, was resolved after US officials determined his ``genuine'' desire to return.
Last week, 22-year-old merchant sailor Miroslav Medvid jumped ship near New Orleans. In a decision seen by some as an effort to sidestep possible diplomatic complications, US officials also opted to allow Mr. Medvid to return. Yesterday, a US court of appeals denied a request by Ukrainian-American groups to temporarily block the departure of a Soviet freighter so that US officials could interview the sailor again.
Diplomatic sources say there is still confusion over the motives behind the Yurchenko redefection. One school describes Yurchenko as a double agent from the start, assigned to embarrass the US on the eve of the summit.
``Maybe he's supposed to be the Francis Gary Powers of the 1985 summit,'' a Washington-based Soviet expert says. In 1960, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used the downing of a US U-2 reconnaissance flight piloted by Mr. Powers as a pretext to torpedo a 1960 summit meeting with President Eisenhower.
Others point to a possible change of heart by Yurchenko, who left behind a wife and 16-year-old son.
Whatever the motive, most here agree that the eagerness of the Soviets to exploit the affair has to do primarily with Soviet embarrassment over the series of what some believe were attempts to defect.
``There's been a lot of defection in the air lately,'' says another US official. ``No doubt the [Yurchenko] press conference was an effort to try to recoup some of the embarrassment that grew from the Medvid and Kabul incidents.''