MOSCOW — The detention of Nicholas Daniloff as an accused spy is the toughest action taken against an American journalist since the repressive era of Josef Stalin.
Coming at a time when the Kremlin appeared to be moving toward the second in a planned series of Soviet-American summit meetings, it also raises new questions about Moscow's sensitivity to U.S. public opinion.
When Daniloff was arrested, Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who has sought to present himself as a moderate who favors greater openness and a more reasonable approach to international relations, was on vacation, presumably in the Crimea, where Soviet leaders customarily spend some time every summer.
Still, Arthur A. Hartman, the U.S. ambassador here, contends that Gorbachev and other members of the Politburo must have approved the decision to take such a serious step as the Daniloff arrest.
Because the arrest here came only eight days after the arrest in New York of the Soviet physicist Gennady F. Zakharov, also on a charge of spying, it has been suggested that the KGB, the Soviet espionage and secret police agency,wanted an American hostage for possible use in a swap.
The groundswell of Western opinion against the jailing of Daniloff appears to have caught the Kremlin by surprise. But not many Soviet officials will acknowledge to a Western correspondent that the KGB might have made a mistake.
"Where there's smoke, there's fire" has been the usual comment with regard to the Daniloff incident. A Soviet citizen handed him a package that contained maps labeled "secret," and about half a dozen KGB agents lurking conveniently nearby took him into custody.
There is now a feeling that the KGB may have created another embarrassing situation like that associated with the case of Anatoly Shcharansky, who was imprisoned for spying. At the time of his conviction, Shcharansky was a little-known Jewish activist, but a world-wide campaign was organized in his behalf, and by the time he was freed last February he had become an international celebrity.
Now, from his new home in Israel, Shcharansky makes use of his fame to publicize his hard-line anti-Communist views.
There is a feeling that Daniloff, a respected expert on Soviet affairs but little known outside the community of such experts, may become equally celebrated.
'Marvelous' Book Material
"He's arrested by the KGB, held in a secret KGB prison and interrogated for hours by KGB officers--what marvelous material for a book," a Soviet source lamented. "It should be a best-seller."
Without doubt the Soviet government's image and the KGB's reputation are at stake. Further, the tortuous path toward Soviet-American agreements may become even more difficult in the wake of the Daniloff incident.
Already the New England Society of Newspaper Editors has canceled a journalism exchange program scheduled to begin this month because of Daniloff's arrest.
"The arrest and detention . . . create an atmosphere of distrust that makes . . . the exchange of journalists impossible at this time," said the society's president, Diane Benison.
Twenty-nine American journalists accredited in Moscow signed a letter protesting the arrest and describing Daniloff as an "innocent victim of an unnecessary action."
Attempt at Intimidation
Their letter charged that the jailing of an American correspondent was an attempt to intimidate all foreign reporters in the Soviet capital. It was the first jailing of an American correspondent since Anna Louise Strong was detained for five days in 1949 during the Stalin era and then expelled from the country. Stalin ruled for nearly 30 years until his death in 1953.
"In recent months we have witnessed greater openness in Soviet society and on the part of the Soviet leadership," the letter said. "We feel that the Daniloff arrest threatens to put new barriers in the way of East-West understanding and to undermine the improved relations between the Western media and the Soviet government."
By the Kremlin's account, the arrest of Zakharov in New York was a "provocation" by the FBI. But the arrest of Daniloff so soon afterward indicated that the stage was being set for an exchange of accused spies.