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Soviet Firefighters Stole U.S. Documents at Embassy

May 03, 1991|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Soviet firefighters stole computer disks and other documents, some of them classified, from the blazing U.S. Embassy in Moscow, but no important national security secrets appear to have been compromised, the State Department said Thursday.

In its first detailed report on the security impact of the March 28 fire that destroyed the central section of the embassy, the department said there is no evidence that coding or secure communications equipment was stolen or compromised.

"Preliminary findings indicate that the most sensitive areas were appropriately locked and . . . those areas were not breached," State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said.

However, some offices in less sensitive parts of the embassy were abandoned before all safes could be locked, resulting in the compromise of some equipment and papers, Tutwiler said. She said that none of it was "national security-sensitive."

Jack F. Matlock Jr., U.S. ambassador to Moscow, has protested the thefts to the Soviet Foreign Ministry, Tutwiler said.

She said that Soviet firefighters had the run of the burning embassy for about two hours during the worst part of the fire. Marine guards accompanied the firefighters for the first half an hour or so but then had to withdraw because "their respirators were depleted and the heat and heavy smoke posed a serious risk to their lives."

"A number of computer disks were taken from open offices, most of which were unclassified," Tutwiler said. "We protested (concerning) what we found to be missing.

"It is a shame that the real courage shown by some Soviet firefighters in battling this serious blaze has been blemished by such actions," Tutwiler added. "There were Soviet firemen who, at considerable risk to themselves, effectively fought this fire, and we greatly appreciate their efforts."

Since the fire, Tutwiler said, no classified or sensitive activities have been conducted in the damaged embassy.

The fire was in an aging building that the State Department has been trying to replace for more than two decades. A new embassy structure, completed years ago, has never been occupied because it was found to have been honeycombed with hidden microphones that apparently were installed by Soviet workers.

Tutwiler said that the fire makes it "double tough" for the embassy to handle sensitive business, though she insisted that secure areas remain.

Tutwiler said there are no plans to discipline employees who left safes open because the intensity of the fire made it impossible for all workers to take required security measures.

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