Bug-free U.S. Embassy building in Moscow opens for business

Structure reflects new relationship of Russia and America

July 07, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - The first time around, the new American Embassy building here was like a giant Soviet antenna, a monument to the ingenuity of the KGB and a constant and embarrassing reminder to the United States of a skirmish lost in the hard-fought Cold War.

Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador James Collins welcomed reporters to the second version of the building, finally open and operating 15 years after the first attempt had to be abandoned.

"It's a symbol," Collins said. "We are entering a new era in our relations with the Russian Federation. It's permanent and very long-term. This building reflects a lot of what we're trying to do today."

Best of all, the embassy is supposed to be bug-free, though the ambassador put it far more diplomatically.

"This was built with American labor," he said, "and built in a way that meets all of the standards developed by the U.S. government."

The U.S. Embassy and its Moscow buildings have a juicy past.

The Soviet Union and United States began negotiating over new embassy buildings in the 1960s and finally agreed in 1969 to allow each other to construct them in Washington and Moscow.

The U.S. Embassy construction began in 1979, using supports built by Soviet workers. By 1985, U.S. officials discovered the supports had eavesdropping equipment embedded throughout

"It's nothing but an eight-story microphone plugged into the Politburo," Dick Armey, a Republican congressman from Texas, said at the time.

The building was abandoned, a lonely red-brick box left standing at one end of the compound of townhouses built at the same time for American diplomats. The project had cost $136 million. The embassy offices remained in the old building up the block.

In retaliation, the United States refused to allow the Soviet Union to occupy its new embassy in Washington. By the time that embassy was opened, it was 1994 and the Soviet Union had died and been succeeded by Russia.

In 1987, a sex scandal tainted the old U.S. Embassy here. A Marine sergeant assigned to guard the building confessed he had fallen in love with a Russian receptionist and violated rules by not disclosing the relationship.

He and some of his friends were accused of allowing KGB agents to wander through the building - though no bugs were reported uncovered in subsequent searches.

Another titillating event occurred at the end of 1991, as the Soviet Union fell apart. Vadim Bakatin, the head of the KGB at the time, presented U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Strauss with the blueprints for the embassy bugs.

Until that moment, the Soviet Union had steadfastly denied the bugging.

It was a gesture of friendship, Bakatin said, and he hoped the United States would be able to de-bug the building and move in.

"This is the most amazing thing that's happened in my life," Strauss replied.

The United States, however, was afraid of being tricked again.

Finally, at a cost of $240 million, the embassy was taken apart brick by brick and rebuilt stone by stone - Minnesota stone. The top two floors were knocked off and replaced by four new secure floors. The stone and glass post-modern building was unofficially opened in May.

Sensitive offices were moved into the top four floors, and offices requiring less secrecy were put on the lower six floors.

"Now we have a way to work in security but also to work with Russians," Collins said yesterday.

Ten years ago, when Collins was here as deputy chief of mission, the embassy had 224 American employees and no Russian employees at all. There were well under a dozen government agencies operating here, he said.

"Today I have a staff of 1,200," he said, "about half of them Russian employees. And there are two-dozen government agencies, involved in everything from building and manning the space station to traditional diplomatic work and commercial work.

"It's an embassy that's no longer an observer but a participant."

He estimates, he said, that more than $2 billion a year in U.S. taxpayer money is spent here, including funds to build the international space station, reduce the nuclear threat and provide aid.

Once, the consulate issued 4,500 visas a year to Russians, he said. Now that has risen to 100,000.

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