Getting rid of the bugs Moscow embassy: U.S. to start a $240 million rescue to make its Russia outpost secure.

February 23, 1996

WHEN IT IS FINALLY finished -- sometime in 1999 at the earliest -- the new U.S. Embassy in Moscow will have been two decades in on-and-off construction and will be the most expensive chancery ever built by American taxpayers. Moreover, even at a price of some $300 million, it will still be so riddled with Soviet-era spy equipment it is unlikely to ever meet the strictest security standards.

The U.S. Embassy used to be located near the Kremlin. But Stalin didn't like it. In 1953, he ordered the embassy to move a site near the Moscow River. After the mission outgrew its building, a big but impractical warren of one-time apartments, a decision was made to build a new embassy nearby.

Soviet construction workers, handpicked by the KGB, built an eight-story embassy that was so full of electronic sensors and other bugging devices that it could not be utilized. There were congressional demands that the tower be demolished and built anew. After years of reviews costing tens of millions of dollars, the State Department has now decided to use the building after all. But before that can be done, its top two floors will be dismantled and replaced with a four-story "top hat" that should be unpenetrable to Russian eavesdroppers.

The new Moscow embassy was part of a deal under which the Soviets could build a new chancery complex for themselves in Washington. Though Russian diplomats claimed American construction workers tried to bug it, the new Soviet complex in D.C. met with satisfaction. In Moscow, Americans were not as lucky.

From the very beginning, the new embassy construction site became a symbolic Cold War battle ground. Soviet masons gleefully built interior walls where the bricks spelled U.S.S.R. Meanwhile, supervision of the site became a bureaucratic tug-of-war among competing U.S. bureaucracies, from the CIA and a special building control unit to then Ambassador Arthur Hartman. The end result was a mess for which taxpayers are now paying dearly.

The KGB was extraordinarily brazen in its efforts to compromise the new embassy. As construction resumes, U.S. officials ought to be prepared for further mischief.

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