WASHINGTON — The scene reeked of an espionage scandal: a young Marine guard at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and his lover, Galia, a buxom Soviet employee at the embassy, caught in the most compromising of situations in an American diplomat's private apartment.
When it happened late last summer, U.S. punishment was swift. Sgt. Arnold Bracy, who seven months later would be arrested in a KGB sex-for-secrets operation that has devastated American interests in Moscow, was busted last Aug. 21 to the rank of corporal.
Then he was put back on duty, guarding the most sensitive diplomatic outpost in the world.
By ignoring the security risk in the Bracy case, officials at the embassy and in Washington probably gave the KGB seven extra months of unmolested spying on the embassy, American intelligence experts said last week.
Several said the Marine spy case underscores a basic and unremedied defect in American counterintelligence and security policies--a complacent attitude toward espionage that has led to fatal lapses in a long string of U.S. spying disasters.
'Biggest Mistake' Cited
"What it points to is much broader--a fundamental management breakdown in handling security across the board," said a federal law enforcement source heavily involved in security matters.
"Don't mistake this. It's not a failure of technical systems. It's a breakdown of people and management."
"The biggest mistake we'll make--and we're going to make it--is to come down on the Marines and stop there," a veteran congressional intelligence expert said. "What we really need to do is to change something that's virtually impossible to change: a mind-set."
In interviews last week, those and other intelligence officials bitterly criticized the State Department and the former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Arthur A. Hartman, for what they called unforgivable blunders in securing the Moscow embassy against the KGB.
More than the Marines, they argued, the American diplomatic Establishment is to blame for overlooking a spy ring that apparently wiped out U.S. intelligence operations in the Soviet Union and gave the Kremlin months of top-secret cables between the embassy and Washington.
One expert disagreed. Former CIA Director William E. Colby said the department "has taken its security responsibilities seriously," and suggested that better overall supervision of the Marine guards might have prevented espionage losses.
All granted, however, that the State Department is far from alone in failing to address the espionage threat effectively. American complacency has been central to every recent U.S. spying loss, from the John A. Walker Jr. Navy spy ring, which lasted 17 years, to the Jonathan Jay Pollard, Larry Wu-tai Chin, Ronald W. Pelton and Edward Lee Howard cases of 1985 and 1986:
--Walker and three helpers fed the Soviets data on ship and submarine movements, stolen easily from the Navy. They were tripped up not by U.S. agents, but by Walker's unhappy ex-wife, who tipped the FBI.
--Pollard, a low-level Navy terrorism analyst, used a limited security clearance to rummage through Pentagon satellite photos, intelligence reports and other top-secret data for Israel.
--Chin, a similarly low-level CIA translator, gave Beijing two decades of top U.S. secrets on Far East policies and military operations. His gambling junkets and Hong Kong trips went unnoticed. The CIA gave him a distinguished service medal on his retirement, and his spying was not discovered until he was implicated by a Chinese defector.
A Bankrupt Drug User
--Pelton quit the super-secret National Security Agency a bankrupt drug user, then sold the Soviets crucial data on U.S. codes and electronic eavesdropping. Soviet defector Vitaly Yurchenko tipped the United States to Pelton in 1985.
--Howard, fired by the CIA for instability and drug use, vanished until Yurchenko disclosed that he had given the Soviets details of U.S. espionage in Moscow. Howard used his CIA training to shake FBI agents trailing him and defected to Moscow in 1986.
U.S. intelligence experts now poring over the cases of Bracy and Marine Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, the other guard accused in the spying operation, say that U.S. officials were as blind to danger signals in those cases as in the past.
According to former diplomats at the Moscow embassy, for example, it was well known that Violetta Seina, a Soviet national who worked there as a translator, had won Lonetree's affections within a few days of her 1984 arrival at the U.S. mission. Lonetree's defense lawyers contend that it was common to allow guards to mingle with Soviet women, despite official policy frowning on such close contact.
Ignored Warning Signs
Embassy officials are now said to have ignored other warning signs in the spy case, including disregarding alarms that Soviet KGB agents tripped as they wandered through the embassy at night in 1986, planting listening devices and photographing documents.