KGB's Gift to the CIA

January 02, 1992

Spy watchers can read anything into a gesture. It is their job, after all. Still, Soviet KGB chief Vadim Bakatin's gesture was something far out of the ordinary. Mr. Bakatin, saying "I don't know how long I'm going to be here," turned over the plans and instruments used to turn a proposed United States embassy building in Moscow into a giant KGB microphone. His agency never admitted bugging the place, but U.S. sleuths had figured out that they'd been had long before the building was ever completed. And so it sits, a site nobody knows quite what to do with.

Even now. U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Strauss, accepting the bugging plans and a suitcase full of spy goodies, said later that he told Mr. Bakatin, "If I were to try to use that building, people would believe that you'd given me three-fourths of [its secrets] and kept a fourth back."

Many observers will recall that at the time the bugging was discovered, official Washington was greatly upset by the intelligence coup. Cooler heads noted, however, that the smugness had just been driven out of U.S. estimates of Soviet electronic sophistication. Moreover, the American intelligence establishment would have a field day crawling all over the site, digging out the latest Soviet eavesdropping techniques.

And so they probably did. Now Mr. Bakatin has provided a kind of test for U.S. intelligence snoops. If he truly did turn over all of his bag of formerly top-secret tricks, their comparative studies of the embassy site and what he turned over should by now be able to prove it. If he didn't, are they sharp enough to catch the hidden extra card?

Maybe it's all an elaborate post-Cold War joke. Mr. Bakatin, after years of bragging by American spies about their electronic capabilities, might simply be showing off a few of his own to see if he can catch them napping. Do the Americans really have confidence in their ability to sniff out a Trojan horse among the gifts he turned over? If the Moscow building is ever used for the proposed new embassy or for the American companies Congress suggested as tenants, we may just find out.

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