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WORLD PERSPECTIVE | EUROPE

U.S. Embassy Project in Russia Veiled in Secrecy

Americans work to remove bugs planted by Soviet-era spies and turn chancery in Moscow into a usable site.

September 26, 1997|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Behind a huge white shroud a mile from the Kremlin, construction crews are working in secret to clean up one of the biggest embarrassments of the Cold War.

In the U.S. Embassy compound, a six-story curtain surrounds the chancery building that was once supposed to be the top-secret nerve center of United States operations in the Soviet Union.

These days, the steady sound of jackhammers comes from behind the curtain. Occasionally, a crane dumps a load of bricks into a truck waiting to haul away debris.

The American workers are eradicating bugs--thousands of bugs--planted by Soviet spies during construction of the building that proved to be a multimillion-dollar mistake.

"This is like the Berlin Wall coming down," said Yuri Boyarsky, a U.S. citizen from Tustin who works at the embassy and lives near the chancery. "It's a new era."

Soon after construction began on the embassy in 1979, the State Department discovered that the Russian workers employed for the job were planting listening devices in the structure.

U.S. officials thought that they would be able to render the bugs ineffective before the building was occupied. But in 1985, when work on the chancery was nearly complete, they realized that hidden microphones embedded in the bricks and building materials were so numerous and so cleverly designed that there was no way to remove or neutralize them without demolishing the structure.

The chancery became known as "the Great Transmitter" and sat unoccupied for more than a decade.

As a gesture of friendship after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian security services handed over the bugging plan for the building to the Americans in Moscow. U.S. officials will not say whether the information was of any help in devising the chancery remodeling plan.

The building originally was constructed as part of a deal in which the Soviet Union and the United States built new embassies for each other. After the revelation of the bugging, U.S. officials refused to let the Russians occupy their new chancery in Washington until 1994, nine years after it was completed.

This spring, crews began demolition work on the Moscow structure as part of a plan to transform it into a usable building.

They will take off the two original top floors and then build four new floors on top of the structure, increasing the height of the building from eight to 10 stories.

The new floors will be used for top-secret activity, while the lower six levels, presumably still full of bugs, will be taken over by staff doing non-classified office work.

"The people who have decided how to use the new embassy are very comfortable with the fact that they can station people in the part of the building that may contain some bugs," said embassy spokesman Richard Hoagland.

So far, the American workers imported for the remodeling job have removed the old top stories and are now taking off the building's brick exterior.

The remodeling work on the chancery will cost $240 million--nearly twice as much as construction of the original building.

The chancery also will look very different.

The old chancery was a red-brick box built in the "Kansas City federal prison" architectural style, as Hoagland described it. The new building is designed to blend in better with its surroundings, including the nearby White House, which contains offices of the Russian government.

One side of the chancery will be a curved glass wall that extends into a prow. The rest of the exterior will be made of white marble.

"It's going to look dramatically different," Hoagland said.

The building is scheduled to be completed by mid-1999--14 years after it was first supposed to be occupied.

Like the Berlin Wall, some of the bricks removed from the building are being sold as souvenirs for charity. But there is no guarantee that buyers will get a bug inside.

Embassy officials are maintaining a high level of secrecy for the renovation. They refuse to give tours of the work site and will not say much about what is going on behind the white curtain.

"The whole building project is classified," Hoagland said.

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