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Soviet Festival Spy Warnings Anger San Diego Mayor

February 15, 1988|RALPH FRAMMOLINO | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — A suggestion by the FBI that a proposed Soviet arts festival here might serve as a cover for KGB spies has Mayor Maureen O'Connor, who proposed the festival, fuming.

Among the ideas under consideration for the festival, which would take place in 1989 or 1990, is that Soviet performers and others would stay with San Diegans in their homes.

The FBI is worried that is just the kind of thing that will draw spies bent on befriending and cultivating residents for espionage purposes. In an interview with The Times, two local FBI officials encouraged residents to report to the bureau any suspicious activity by Soviet house guests.

"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.

"We're asking for people to help us," Harman said. "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 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 is intended as a follow-up to the warming of relations typified by the December summit meeting of President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

But Harman and Marc A. Sutherland, who is in charge of counterintelligence investigations in San Diego, said that since 1985, when several Soviet diplomats were expelled from the country because they were suspected of spying, the Soviets have been sending in an increased number of tourists, scientific delegations and students.

With its huge military ports, the Top Gun training school for Navy pilots and an abundance of sophisticated defense contractors, San Diego is a natural espionage target, 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, seemingly harmless chatter or actions during 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 a resident what his or her middle initial stands for.

That is 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, full names are needed to fill in all the blanks.

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.

'Inordinate Interest'

"If I had a guest in my house and he was asking to make long-distance phone calls or made extensive use of the phone. . . . If he was unaccompanied until late hours in unfamiliar areas of the city," Sutherland said.

"I think if somebody showed an inordinate interest in military installations, that might be noteworthy," Harman said, adding that an experienced spy probably would not be so bold.

"The strength of the spy is he appears normal, blends in well and doesn't want to appear threatening," Sutherland said. "He wants to let these things happen in a very normal fashion."

"With that dancer, there very well may be someone standing around with no apparent purpose," Harman said. "And if I were involved in hosting that group, there might be a little funny feeling there that something isn't right.

"It's that 'something-isn't-right-here' feeling that we want people to call us about."

One person who will not be calling is O'Connor.

"Please! The community of San Diego is much more responsible than that!" she exclaimed.

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