WASHINGTON — As U.S. diplomats and other workers fled a fire burning through the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in late March, Moscow city firefighters rushed in. And, it turns out, so did a number of KGB agents, the Bush Administration charged Tuesday.
"The Soviets did have unescorted access to the embassy for an extended period during the fire," White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said.
As a result, Fitzwater said, "we have had to consider the building compromised in terms of classified operations pending completion of a security assessment."
The March 28 fire destroyed the top floors of the trouble-plagued, 10-story building and heavily damaged the rest of the structure.
The blaze was intense, with flames at times reaching 30 feet into the air, and the firefighters were forced to retreat down their aerial ladders.
Nevertheless, KGB agents took advantage of the confusion during the five hours it took to extinguish the blaze to poke around without the customary escorts by U.S. security personnel and Marines, according to the White House and the State Department. The Marines are responsible for guarding U.S. embassies around the world.
"I would say that's a problem," a senior Administration official said.
The snooping by the KGB, the Soviet security agency, was disclosed Tuesday by the Washington Times.
Officials said the Administration is now determining the extent to which embassy secrets may have been compromised.
"Before prejudging the special circumstances, it's only fair to find out what happened," the senior official said.
Fitzwater said the Administration protested to Soviet officials over the KGB snooping.
According to the Washington Times, the agents stole documents and equipment from the embassy. The newspaper said four KGB officers--dressed in protective suits and posing as firefighters--pulled out secure telephones and communications equipment as well as passports and personnel effects of embassy personnel.
Asked whether the Soviet access to the embassy had hampered operations there, Fitzwater said, "Yes, sure."
Another White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that "no one can really pinpoint exactly what happened." But so far it appears that there has been "no major security breach," he said.
"In a chaotic situation, in a fire, when you don't know where stuff is kept or the layout, it's kind of difficult" to determine where the most sensitive material would be located and then find it, he said.
However, he said, the KGB agents could conceivably have "stumbled across the political officer's desk and found top-secret cables."
Immediately after the fire, temporary offices were set up in the nearby residential compound. But the effectiveness of the most important U.S. listening post in the Soviet Union was greatly reduced.
The fire was believed to have been started by sparks from a welder's torch.
The U.S. Embassy facilities have been at the center of controversy for several years.
Four years ago, a congressional report labeled the embassy "a firetrap and unsafe" after a series of major and minor fires.
But it has remained in use because its replacement has had an equally troubled history. Work on the new building, one block away, was halted in 1985 when the structure was two-thirds complete because U.S. inspectors found it infested with electronic eavesdropping devices, apparently installed by Soviet builders.
Meanwhile, the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted 16 to 0 Tuesday after bitter debate to reject a proposal to tear down the new embassy compound. The panel voted instead to add four floors to the top of the building, leaving two of the original floors in place.
Rep. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Me.) charged that State Department and CIA officials had acquiesced to the "top hat" alternative approved by the committee because lawmakers have refused to finance the embassy's total reconstruction.
California Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Los Angeles) said the added floors would be built by American workers using U.S. materials.
He said State Department and CIA officials had assured him that the new floors would be as secure as an entirely new building, and the existing floors can be used for storage of printed material.
U.S. EMBASSY'S MISFORTUNE IN MOSCOW
Safety and security woes have plagued the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for decades. It was the suspicions of Josef Stalin that forced the U.S. diplomatic corps to move out of its previous embassy across from the Kremlin and into its present home, a mustard-colored apartment building that the United States has rented since 1953. Over the years, the building has been the site of espionage and intrigues involving mysterious microwave bombardments, the bugging of the ambassador's office and a sex-for-secrets scandal involving Marine guards. It has also been beset by so many blazes that the State Department labeled it a "firetrap" four years ago. But it has remained in use because of difficulty in constructing a new embassy in the Soviet capital. Work on that building was halted in 1985, when it was two-thirds complete, after U.S. inspectors found it so infested with eavesdropping devices that it would never be secure.