There is a silent audience scattered throughout the United States intently watching every turn in the current negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union over Nicholas Daniloff and Gennady Zakharov. They are the hundreds of Soviet citizens the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates are currently working undercover in the US for the Soviet intelligence service, the KGB. Each one of them has a vested interest in the outcome of the superpower test of wills.
According to some analysts, the Soviets' hard line in calling for the total release of Mr. Zakharov, a United Nations employee who was arrested in New York last month on espionage charges, is sending a reassuring message to dedicated KGB agents stationed in the US.
Zakharov's arrest and the subsequent jailing in Moscow of Mr. Daniloff, an American journalist, have sparked a debate over how best to handle the future arrest and prosecution of alleged Soviet spies in the US.
Some observers wonder whether talk of a negotiated settlement of the standoff undermines the deterrent effect of tough US espionage laws on KGB agents here.
But other experts counter that in the real world of intelligence gathering, negotiated swaps are a necessary option in dealing with the Soviets.
``This is a tough world and a tough business,'' says Richard Helms, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. ``I think that US counterintelligence has to nail these people and arrest them whenever they can make a case against them.''
But Mr. Helms stresses that the US government must reserve the option of negotiating with the Soviet Union whenever necessary in the interest of achieving results. The alternative, he says, is for individuals such as Daniloff to have to endure lengthy prison sentences in the Soviet Union, and for relatively minor episodes to escalate into major confrontations.
``If we establish a policy of no exchanges of spies in the US, we would have to accept that the same number of people [Westerners accused of spying] in Eastern Europe when caught would be sentenced to long prison terms and would spend the time in East European prisons,'' says Ladislav Bittman, a defector from Czechoslovakia who is now an author and university professor.
Professor Bittman notes that the Soviets perceived the arrest of Zakharov as a provocation -- a form of entrapment by US officials. Likewise, the American government has said that Daniloff was set up by the Soviets on manufactured spy charges.
``We have to negotiate some kind of resolution, some kind of exchange,'' Bittman says.
There are roughly 1,000 Soviet diplomats, officials, UN employees, business people, students, and others in the US, and another 3,000 from the other East-bloc countries combined. It is estimated that one-quarter of these people are involved in intelligence activities.
In addition, 7,000 Soviet and East-bloc tourists visited the US last year.
Despite a string of spy arrests in 1984 and '85, the majority of the Soviet personnel involved in the most recent espionage rings have enjoyed diplomatic immunity and were quickly ushered out of the US by Soviet authorities. The few Soviet and East-bloc agents who have been convicted and sentenced to prison in the West have traditionally been traded in well-publicized spy swaps usually carried out at the Glienicke Bridge between East and West Berlin.
Last February, Soviet dissident Anatoly Shcharansky was swapped for five people held in the West on charges of espionage. And in June 1985, the US traded a convicted Polish intelligence officer, two East Germans convicted of spying, and a Bulgarian trade official accused of spying, for 25 Europeans held in East Germany on various spy charges.
Such strenuous efforts to protect intelligence agents and arrange swaps when necessary play a critical role in maintaining a healthy morale among intelligence operatives in the field -- both KGB and American -- intelligence specialists say.
They note that from the Soviets' point of view, the trial and potential life imprisonment of Zakharov poses a fundamental threat to Soviet spy activities in the US. If he decided to cooperate with American counterintelligence officials, Zakharov could name names of colleagues operating in the US. But more important, if he is sent to prison for life, other East-bloc agents in the US may think twice before trying to recruit Americans to spy. The expensive Soviet spy effort in the US could bog down.
``In any organization which runs intelligence operations, you want to keep high morale and you want your people sometimes to take chances,'' former CIA director Helms says. ``One of the ways to keep that kind of morale and to keep people wanting to work is to make it very clear that if they get into trouble the organization is going to do everything it possibly can for them.''
He adds, ``If you are going to let them rot in some jail for a long time and no one is going to fight to get them out, then that gets around the organization and no one wants to take any chances [anymore].''