In a move that could further increase superpower tension, the official Soviet news agency Tass alleged yesterday that the Western press has long been ``actively used by the CIA for espionage.'' Until now, most official commentaries have stressed that jailed American reporter Nicholas Daniloff was an unfortunate exception to the rule. But Tass said ``more than 800 newspapers and other periodicals, press services, and news agencies'' are in the ``sphere of influence'' of the United States Central Intelligence Agency.
This number grows annually, Tass says, as the CIA is constantly ``trying to lay [its] hands on new American foreign mass media, and recruiting [its] own agents from among the bourgeois journalists.''
Since Mr. Daniloff, a correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, was arrested on Aug. 30, Soviet spokesmen have stressed that genuine journalists have nothing to fear. The most detailed account of the Daniloff case to appear so far in the Soviet news media, an article in the government newspaper Izvestia on Monday, went so far as to say that foreign correspondents had shunned Daniloff because they suspected he was involved in something fishy.
This charge is rejected by US reporters. Indeed, every accredited US correspondent in Moscow has signed a letter demanding Daniloff's release and expressing support for their colleague. Daniloff was a mentor for many correspondents in Moscow, former Moscow correspondents say.
The Tass dispatch could be another Soviet effort to justify their contention that Daniloff was a spy, and not a genuine correspondent. But it could also be a sign that Moscow is preparing the ground for further moves against journalists here -- in the event, for example, that Washington takes retaliatory measures over the Daniloff case.
Although reports from Washington have spoken of possible reprisals for the Daniloff arrest -- such as the expulsion of members of the Soviet UN delegation -- there is a strong feeling among Westerners here that these would only lead to countermoves by Moscow. Reprisals would not, it is felt, cause the Soviet leadership to back down on the case. They could lead to a hardening of Moscow's position.
The most likely solution, as long as tempers in Washington and Moscow remain relatively cool, would seem to be a three-way exchange.
Daniloff and Gennady Zakharov, the Soviet UN official whose arrest on Aug. 23 is thought to have triggered Daniloff's arrest, would be released into the custody of their respective ambassadors. Daniloff would then be allowed to leave the country; Mr. Zakharov would go on trial. After a decent interval, Zakharov might then be exchanged for a third person, perhaps someone in a Soviet prison convicted of espionage for the West. [Daniloff himself has suggested such a solution. Yesterday, Daniloff said the KGB liked this idea, according to his successor, Jeff Trimble.]
Although behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts are undoubtedly continuing, there is no sign of any breakthrough. Nor is there any sign that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has replied to the personal appeal sent him on Friday by President Reagan, in which the President assured the Soviet leader that Daniloff was not a spy.
Officials in Washington have hinted that Gorbachev has responded to the message. But the report of this, carried in yesterday's New York Times, gave no details.