THE serious breaches of security by Marine Guards at the US Embassy in Moscow have focused attention on the problems of protecting the communications of our embassies around the world. Since 1948, that task has fallen to detachments of specially trained Marine enlisted men. As the United States assumed a central role in world affairs, adversarial powers tried to penetrate our missions. Civilian guards who had performed this duty before were in many places local nationals. Their replacement by a selected group of American men under military discipline was regarded as an essential upgrading of security.
Over the years, however, the position of the Marines in embassies has not been easy - or without problems. The primary purpose of the detachment is to protect the security of sensitive documents and equipment. In crises such as the storming of the embassy in Tehran in 1979, many Americans asked why the Marines could not hold off the mob. Decisions made by ambassadors that Marines should not use fire arms in riot situations have been criticized. Marines have acted with great courage in many situations, but they are not there for combat.
Instead their mission has been to stand watch at the entrance and to patrol the embassy premises on nights and weekends. Even their prescribed duties, however, involve them in significant collateral functions.
For many Marines, embassy duty is boring and lonely, especially in a capital, such as Moscow, where restrictions are placed on fraternizing with local people. Softball, running, the annual Marine Corps Ball, and ``Thank God It's Friday'' parties can absorb only some of a young man's energies. Having a mission quite different from that of most of the other official Americans, they are made to feel a part of the embassy family only if the chief of mission and others make a special effort on their behalf. Many Marines do not have the interests and inner resources to endure easily so restricted a life. A few weeks of special training in the US and admonitive briefings do not prepare all for the reality of the life they will lead. The vulnerability of some to the advances of Soviet women is understandable, if deplorable.
Responsibility for the failure in Moscow certainly lies with the individual Marines, but questions are inevitable about the supervision of the detachment.
Perhaps, in part, the problem lies in the divided responsibility common in most embassies. A commissioned Marine is the military commander, but he usually resides in another capital and only occasionally visits the post. The administrative officer and the security officer of the embassy probably relied heavily on the resident non-commissioned officer in charge. Clearly, someone did not see that rules were enforced and behavior monitored.
Inevitably, when such an incident occurs, there are searches for alternatives. Members of Congress talk about a civilian contract guard solution. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that this one incident, however serious, means that Marines cannot do this job. Hired civilian guards would be more expensive and, even if accompanied by families, would probably be no less vulnerable than the Marines. Neither would they be subject to the military discipline that should be a strong element in creating an effective guard force.
This has clearly been a major shock to the Marine Corps. Before turning to other questionable solutions to the problem of protecting the secrets of our embassies, the nation should count on the Marine leadership and the State Department to correct the weaknesses in training, living conditions, attitudes, and supervision exposed in this recent incident.
No system is likely to be totally safe under the pressures of adversarial assaults; the present one has served the country well for 40 years; it should not be abandoned because of one failure, as serious as that was.
David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.