HENRY KISSINGER was in town the other day. Among other things, he told a funny story about the new, bugged United States Embassy in Moscow, and the Soviet Union's new embassy on a commanding hill in Washington, which gives it excellent electronic surveillance over much of the capital. When the embassy scandal first broke, Dr. Kissinger dug into back files, fearful that the problem might have started on his watch as secretary of state. He was relieved to discover that it all began when Lyndon Johnson was president.
It seems that when the Soviets wanted a new embassy in Washington, they chose a flat piece of land, useless for electronic eavesdropping, in Maryland. The local citizens ran them out of town. The Soviets tried again, with another piece of land, also flat, and of little value for surveillance. They failed again, in the face of local hostility. According to Kissinger, the frustrated Soviets then approached the State Department.
The State Department suggested an old hospital site on one of the highest points around Washington. Ironically, the Soviets first turned it down. Even more ironically, the State Department said it was the only site the Soviets could have.
That is why the Soviets today have a new embassy ready with excellent line-of-sight electronic surveillance opportunities to such buildings as the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House.
In this diplomatic imbroglio that smacks of a Peter Sellers movie, there is yet another chapter. When the United States wanted to build a new US embassy in Moscow, the Soviets at first offered a commanding site in the Lenin Hills. The Lenin Hills overlook Moscow - affording excellent opportunities for US electronic eavesdropping on the Soviet capital. Moreover, the site was in the midst of the official residences of members of the Soviet hierarchy - another plus for the eavesdroppers.
According to Kissinger, US officials in Moscow rejected the site, on grounds that ``embassies belong downtown, in the center of things.'' That is why the new US Embassy under construction in Moscow today is downtown - but on a flat piece of land with limited possibilities for eavesdropping on the Soviets.
The Soviets will not be allowed to use their new embassy in Washington until the issue of the new US Embassy in Moscow is resolved. But the outcome is that the Soviets in Washington will be installed on a hill, from which they can eavesdrop on American communications, while the Americans in Moscow will be on low land, with their opportunities for eavesdropping hobbled.
The new US Embassy in Moscow is so riddled with Soviet-installed bugs and listening devices that it is to be torn down and built again. Kissinger surmises that every known arm of the assorted Soviet intelligence services has had a crack at penetrating the building, maybe stumbling over one another's bugs in the process.
Which brings us to the point of this column, namely that despite the fresh breezes of glasnost, old Russian habits die hard. Theirs is a secretive society that penetrates and tries to compromise the secrets of others.
Bug the US Embassy? Sure, if you can get away with it.
Run an espionage network within the US to acquire American defense secrets? Why not?
Spread a little disinformation? Sure. The Soviets are still, in their propaganda, claiming that the South Korean airliner they shot down five years ago was on a ``painstakingly planned espionage operation'' by the US.
Let's welcome glasnost's advent. And let's remember that Russians will be Russians.