WASHINGTON — During a visit to U.S. aircraft plants several years ago, Soviet officials literally picked up secrets with their shoes. Bits of metal filings, collected from the floor with special adhesives on the soles of the shoes, yielded valuable data on the alloys being used in airplane construction, according to a Soviet defector.
On the other hand, when an international inspection team visited a Soviet chemical depot at Shikhany more recently, building walls were freshly painted, roads were repaved, and the ground was brushed over in the visited areas, one U.S. official said. "Not for appearances' sake, but to prevent anyone from getting samples," he said.
These episodes illustrate a heightened concern over the considerable potential for learning secrets--and losing them--when inspectors from each side visit missile facilities of the other to verify compliance with the recently signed U.S.-Soviet treaty banning ground-launched intermediate-range missiles.
'Try to Hide'
"It's a given that, when we visit them, they'll try to hide what we shouldn't see and we'll try to see what we shouldn't see," another U.S. official said. "And vice versa, of course."
The closest analogous situation is the U.S. and Soviet military intelligence teams of 14 men, who have been accredited since World War II to the other's army in East and West Germany, respectively. In what has been termed "legalized spying," the teams can roam, within limits, to learn all they can as they monitor the military forces of the other side. Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson Jr., who was shot to death by a Soviet sentry in 1985, was a member of the U.S. team based in Potsdam, East Germany.
Twenty-five U.S. sites--13 of them in the United States and the rest in Europe--will be subject to Soviet inspection, according to the State Department, while about 110 Soviet sites will be subject to U.S. inspection. Each inspection team will have 10 members, and each side will be able to make between 10 and 20 inspections each year for the next 13 years under the treaty.
"There is obviously a possibility for collateral intelligence collection here," said Michael Krepon, an expert on treaty verification at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But neither the United States nor the Soviet Union has chosen to draw attention to the prospect that secrets unrelated to the new treaty may be jeopardized in the inspection process.
Both have concluded that, in national security terms, the benefits of inspections outweigh the risks. Politically, neither side wishes to give its conservatives an excuse to oppose this and future arms control treaties that provide for on-site inspections by raising the spy issue.
Moreover, most experts believe that neither side has an obvious edge in the potential for such espionage, even though some see a marginally greater gain for one or the other, depending on the subject to be targeted for such intelligence collection.
More Use to America
Because the United States has generally been more open than the Soviet Union, America will get more use from the same amount of information than the Soviets, according to William R. Harris of the RAND Corp. The Soviets, he predicted, will gather more information but will get no more use from it overall.
"The overall value to us will be at least as great as the overall value to them," Harris said.
However, the two sides will also have different priorities, other experts said, and success in gaining new information and insight in the targeted areas can be worth more to one side than to the other.
The Soviets, for example, can be expected to focus their attention on advanced U.S. technology and research, while the United States will concentrate most on Soviet production and logistics to help determine the size of Soviet arsenals. If both sides succeed in their goals, some experts believe that the Soviets will gain marginally more than the United States.
U.S. intelligence agencies were embarrassed when the Soviets disclosed in the missile treaty that they have at least three times more shorter-range (300- to 600-mile) missile launchers than U.S. agencies had estimated: Instead of between 10 and 30 launchers, the Soviets admitted having 82 operational launchers and a total of 167 operational missiles, plus 33 more of the weapons in storage.
How the Soviets produced, stored and fielded so many more weapons than had been detected is one of the most important questions to be raised by the information exchanged under the new treaty, officials said. Perhaps if a civilian missile engineer walks through a Soviet facility as part of an inspection team, U.S. intelligence agencies could gain insights that would enable them to construct a better military and economic model explaining actual Soviet missile production.