US Embassy Decor: Wall-to-Wall Spies

MOSCOW STATION: HOW THE KGB PENETRATED THE AMERICAN EMBASSY By Ronald Kessler, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 305 pp. $19.95

HERE is a fresh entry in publishing's espionage sweepstakes, and one heavily larded with splashy S-words: scandal (cover-up of), secrets (loss of), security (failure of), spies (masses of), and certainly sex and seduction (US Marines as victims of).

The bottom line is a bankable and profitable S-word - sensation - especially now that ``60 Minutes'' and Time have chosen to publicize Ronald Kessler's slam-bang accusations that:

The American embassy in Moscow was, until recently, a wide-open espionage target; its 200 Soviet employees were all KGB agents; Arthur Hartman (ambassador between 1981 and '86) and virtually everyone there ignored the danger; haughty diplomats scorned and bullied the young Marine guards; two Marines were so sexually entrapped by Soviet women as to permit KGB agents to penetrate the embassy's vital communications center; the KGB smashed CIA spy networks as a result; every United States counter-espionage organization is basically incompetent save the ultra-effective FBI; the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) bungled a hasty and ill-focused inquiry after a guilty conscience prompted Sergeant Clayton Lonetree to start talking late in 1986; and former Corporal Arnold Bracy - who confessed but then recanted - is indeed guilty, but has escaped scot-free while Lonetree received 30 years.

Kessler's position is that of the outraged investigative reporter, standing alone for truth and justice.

A full-page article on July 20, 1987, in the New York Times conveyed the essence of his charges. The recent excerpts from this book in Time magazine recycle them yet again. So ``Moscow Station'' presents nothing new, and has been fattened up with much irrelevant spy stuff.

His outraged stance is not new, either. It goes back to Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and other turn-of-the-century muckrakers; Ralph Nader continues it, and Woodward and Bernstein showed how powerful it could be.

But these writers could document their charges, while Kessler cannot. Espionage leaves few traces, as he makes clear. Unless the spy is caught in the act or chooses to confess, there is virtually no evidence, no smoking gun or missing person, and no stolen documents or the equivalent.

So Kessler turns to another set of S-words: supposition and speculation, simplification and superficiality. Here the book collapses, for he simply lacks the balance, perspective - and perhaps the inclination - to discriminate between good, bad, and indifferent sources, or to treat political and personal relationships in anything but a salacious and sensational manner.

Hence, the Soviet Union is simply the KGB empire, a slave state run by the political police. ``Just to make sure that no one got away, the Soviets locked passengers in their berths on overnight trains between Moscow and Leningrad.'' This would be laughable were it not so absurd, and especially absurd under Gorbachev.

There is a purpose, however. The vision of the KGB as 10 feet tall enables Kessler to dismiss contemptuously the State Department's reasons for employing Soviet citizens: Didn't those careless diplomats realize they were letting spies into the Moscow embassy? Why did Ambassador Hartman permit it?

That Hartman actually tried to tighten security by requiring everyone to wear badges and having a barrier built at the entrance is ignored by Kessler.

No doubt certain Soviet employees, particularly the secretaries who had very limited access to low-level documents, were indeed KGB officers.

And no doubt the drivers, cleaners, repairmen, etc., made occasional reports to the KGB. But this is a long way from talking about ``240 Soviet spies.''

Kessler does no better in understanding the Marines. Here were young men, unmarried (the cost and difficulty of using married Marines would be enormous) and often lonely, alert but certainly unworldly, expected to conform to military ethics in a much looser civilian environment.

There are analogies to Oliver North in the White House. That Lonetree went wrong is tragic but understandable.

That Kessler should accuse Bracy of being even worse is tragic in what it suggests about a writer out to hype his sales.

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