U.S. embassy debacle case of complacency

It has been said that overconfidence can be one’s worst enemy. It spelled doom for the 1969 Baltimore Orioles, who boasted they would whip the Miracle Mets in the World Series and it might have cost Marvin Hagler his middleweight boxing title last week.

Nevertheless, having too much confidence can lull even the best of us into a feeling of complacency to the extent that serious consequences might result. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Moscow—the U.S. embassy to be exact. The Reagan Administration now is reeling over the discovery of private tours of the embassy given to foreign agents and a new facility that more than one disgusted government official has labeled “a giant antenna.”

The embassy fiasco is an example, not so much of overconfidence, but of the complacent attitude and the lack of attention to what was going on. The U.S. hardly supervised the construction site of its new embassy building and also foolishly allowed Soviet builders to pre-fabricate some of the construction forms away from the building site, thereby enabling the Soviets to plant listening devices at will. Two legislators who recently visited the new embassy building reported they had to use a “Magic Slate”—a childrens’ writing toy where scratched messages can be quickly erased by lifting the plastic writing surface off darkened wax—to communicate.

The lesson which should have been learned by the government is that there is a constant game of espionage and counter-espionage between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. A recent broadcast of ABC News Nightline showed a news clip from 1960 where a U.S. official held up a plaque given to the U.S. by the Soviets which contained a hidden microphone. More than 25 years later, instead of just a wall hanging, we are holding up a whole building.

Regardless of whether we spy on the Soviets more than they spy on us or vice-versa is irrelevant. The simple, ugly fact that we allowed our entire new embassy building to become “a giant antenna” is downright inexcusable. After all, would you leave your car repairs in the hands of a mechanic in the habit of duplicating keys? Probably not. Similarly, it makes just as little sense to leave the construction of your embassy, your most valuable—and many times your only—foreign outpost, in the hands of people interested in stealing information.

The mere fact that the U.S. embassy is infested with electronic surveillance devices is both embarrasing and frightening. Not only does the government look foolish for allowing such a massive amount of hidden microphones to be planted, but there also is the serious question as to whether or not the planting of those devices could have been prevented in the first place.

After all, was the CIA too weakened by budget cutbacks or regulation that it could do nothing to prevent the embassy fiasco? Or was it just not considered to be a possibility that something like this could happen? Either way, the U.S. is now the proud owner of the world’s largest and most expensive transmitting device.

The lesson to be learned as a result of the embassy debacle is simply to watch what you are doing and be careful of what others are doing for you. American supervision of the construction of the embassy was necessary to keep things honest. The Soviets monitored the construction of their new facility in Washington. They even got a choice location on top of a hill which enables them to monitor electronic messages and signals floating around the city. The U.S. said little and wound up in a small valley.

What needs to be done is simply to improve the attitude of dealing with other nations. The U.S. needs to intelligently cover all the bases and be aware of what is going on in all areas of interest. It cannot afford to be lulled into a sleepy complacent state of mind and expect to remain a world leader. A simple improvement would be to follow the old gambler’s adage. “Trust everyone, but make sure you cut the cards.”