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Soviet Spies: Making a Mole Hill Out of an Arts Festival?

February 12, 1988|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | Times Staff Writer

So you're praying for world peace and you feel the inspiration to open your home to one of the Soviet dancers, musicians or performers whom Mayor Maureen O'Connor wants to bring to San Diego for her proposed monthlong festival of Soviet culture.

Well, the FBI wants to hear from you. The bureau is worried that the Soviet arts festival is just the kind of event that will draw spies bent on befriending local residents and cultivating them for espionage purposes.

"Our experience is that they use these (cultural) groups on a regular basis," said Bob Harman, an FBI special agent who lectures area businesses on spying. "The fact that there is a lot of publicity hasn't been a deterrent."

In a lengthy interview Thursday with The Times, Harman and Marc A. Sutherland, who is in charge of counterintelligence investigations in San Diego, said they hope local residents will assist the bureau in catching spies during the proposed arts festival--as well as during any visits by Soviet tour groups and delegations--by calling and reporting suspicious activity.

"That's the reason we're talking to you," Harman said. "We're asking for people to help us. When people know they are going to be entertaining a Soviet, we would appreciate a call. . . . We're obviously going to be asking them questions to determine whether or not they're in an intelligence situation."

When informed about the FBI's concerns, O'Connor accused the agents of trying to take the fun out of her arts festival.

"They're just putting a big wet damper on it, if that's what they're saying," O'Connor said. "I'm amazed that they're saying that."

The mayor stressed repeatedly that her office has been working with the U.S. State Department, as well as the U.S. Information Agency, to arrange the cultural exchange. "We just don't run out and do things," O'Connor said. "We're not that stupid.

"If it was a concern, I'm surprised they (FBI) haven't called the mayor's office," she said. "We have a number."

In her State of the City address Jan. 11, O'Connor disclosed that her office had begun negotiations to bring top Soviet musicians, artists and performers to San Diego for a monthlong festival in either 1989 or 1990. Since then, O'Connor has met with Soviet officials in San Francisco and is planning a trip to Moscow as early as next month to solidify those plans, she said.

The festival was undertaken in the atmosphere of hope and friendship that grew out of the recent summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to hash out an agreement eliminating medium-range nuclear weapons, O'Connor said. One of the ideas was to have the Soviet artists stay in the homes of San Diegans as part of the cultural exchange.

But the FBI agents say that is exactly the kind of set-up that draws spies, especially in the wake of a recent U.S. crackdown on Soviet covert activities.

Harman and Sutherland said that, in 1985, several Soviet diplomats were expelled from the country because they were suspected of spying. Since then, the Soviets have been trying mightily to side-step controls on their diplomats by sending in an increased number of tourists, scientific delegations and students.

With its huge military ports, Top Gun training school and abundance of sophisticated defense contractors, San Diego is a natural target for these prosaic spies, the FBI agents said.

While official diplomats in San Diego are watched closely and are forced to follow their itinerary, the less official Soviet tourist can roam at will, as if he were an Iowa resident here for the Holiday Bowl. Since 1985, there has been more than a 100% increase in Soviet visitors to San Diego, Sutherland said.

"The mayor's is one of many programs," Harman said. "It's an example of increased travel--to the universities, the businesses. Ballet. Soccer. Basketball.

"The FBI is not opposed to increased contacts between the countries. In all logical ways, the increased contact is beneficial."

Yet the increased contact is fertile ground for a spy from Soviet or Warsaw-pact countries, who may come on to an unsuspecting American citizen like any tourist. Harmless chatter or actions during, say, the mayor's arts festival could actually be an attempt by the spy to cultivate a source, the agents warned.

"What we've seen is that groups of this type will have people who behave and act like spies," Harman said.

And how's that?

Well, for one, a spy posing as a house guest might ask you what your middle initial stands for.

That's important, the agents said, because a spy must report all of his contacts in a "bureaucratic fashion," which means he fills out reports to his superior. Presumably, your full name is needed to fill in all the blanks.

Your date of birth is important, too.

"He might say, 'I'm interested in astrology, and I want to do your chart. What is your birth date?' " Harman said.

Those who would open their house to Soviets should look for other warning signs as well, Sutherland said.

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