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Our Leaky State Department

May 14, 2000

Fifty years ago Washington was shaken by worries over spies in the State Department. Today the worries are back.

In 1998 a man walked into the secretary of State's suite on the department's supposedly secure seventh floor, helped himself to a sheaf of classified documents left atop a desk and strolled away. Neither the man nor the documents have been seen since. Last year a Russian diplomat was found on a street near the department monitoring a listening device that was traced to a department conference room. How long the equipment had been there isn't known. Then in January a laptop computer loaded with highly sensitive information on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction disappeared from an office in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. All three incidents--and there may be others--point to a dangerously inexcusable carelessness in security.

The problem appears to be long-standing. The CIA, for example, is known to be reluctant to share some classified data with the State Department because it fears security leaks or thefts. The department's security procedures, in fact, seem not only to have provided opportunities for spying but invited them. No clear procedure exists for tracking the thousands of pages of classified documents that circulate each day. And it was only last August that the department began requiring escorts for hundreds of non-American government visitors who come to the department each day, among them scores of foreign diplomats.

Accredited reporters are exempt from the escort requirement, but only now is the department acting to enforce a requirement that they confine themselves to the first two floors of the State Department building. Building passes have been issued to 467 journalists and technicians, among them 56 employees of non-U.S. news media. The department dismisses an FBI official's suggestion that some of the foreign reporters could be spying.

A security system that contracts out for guards and maintenance and food service workers and then runs only the most cursory checks on their backgrounds is asking for trouble. This laxity is part of a larger pattern that has tolerated employee casualness when it comes to safeguarding classified information.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has been publicly furious about the security lapses and is demanding sweeping improvements. That demand will be taken seriously only if it is backed by stringent enforcement procedures, including punishment for those department employees who shirk their responsibilities. It shouldn't take a lot of money to make the needed changes. But it could require a small revolution in attitude to make sure the State Department doesn't run an open house for spies.

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