Don't Fix the Foreign Service if It Ain't Broke

UNDER the dubious headline, ``Rooting Out Spies in the US Foreign Service,'' Robert J. Tepper writes in the Sept. 12 Monitor that in the country's 200-year history Felix Bloch, former deputy chief of the United States Mission to Austria, is the only Foreign Service officer ever to have been suspected of spying, much less indicted or convicted. He also notes that the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps have all had spy scandals, as have the CIA, the National Security Agency, and even the FBI. Finally, he points out that most of the classified information passing through the hands of Foreign Service officers, even senior ones like Mr. Bloch, is not sensitive in the sense of posing a risk to national security if it were compromised. On the whole, diplomats do not deal on a daily basis with the details of weapons systems and their capabilities, targets, etc. Nor do they share information on intelligence sources or methods that might endanger individual agents or sources if disclosed.

Having made a strong case for the almost pristine purity of the Foreign Service, Mr. Tepper then proceeds to draw exactly the wrong inference. He seems to conclude that even though no spies have ever been discovered in the Foreign Service (barring Mr. Bloch, who has not been indicted) they must nonetheless exist, and strong measures are justified to root them out. He rejects the notion that the CIA or foreign intelligence services should be charged with monitoring our diplomats abroad on a routine basis. But he does suggest that broader use be made of lie-detector tests on diplomats returning from overseas, and that they be subjected to a security review, including an ``interview'' with a board of senior officers.

Why? The procedures Mr. Tepper recommends would be very costly in financial terms. The CIA asks that its people submit to a lie-detector test every few years during regular security updates, but doesn't ``box'' personnel returning from every overseas assignment. Just how the review board he suggests would conduct itself is also unclear. ``I say, old chap, did you happen to bump into any KGB agents during your tour in Vienna?''

There would be very serious costs to treating every diplomat as a potential spy. Foreign Service officers have a relationship with their government that is absolutely unique. Alone among officers of the career services, they are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, not only when they are first commissioned, but at every major change of status (such as promotions) in the course of their careers. This relationship reflects the high degree of confidence - both ways - required by their special mission.

Diplomats do political and economic reporting from abroad, but they are neither spies nor agents. They are essentially negotiators. As in other high-level negotiations, the president and Congress have to be fully confident that their representatives will exercise their talents with independence to make the best deal possible within the limits of their instructions; and the negotiators have to be confident that political leaders will stand behind the deal once it is made. The damage to this unique relationship of mutual confidence would be incalculable if our nation's diplomats were (and were seen to be) reduced to the status of lackeys on the end of some electronic string.

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