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Bush's new ambassador to Moscow will face a real mess

Robert Strauss may be a dyed-in-the-wool member of the wrong political party and he may be a relative novice when it comes to the finer points of Soviet affairs. He does, however, have something going for him that few others do _ he's a longtime buddy of fellow Texas millionaires George Bush and Jim Baker. The way things work in Washington, that's more than enough to win Strauss America's most sensitive diplomatic assignment _ ambassador to Moscow. As our Republican president apparently figures it, if Jim Baker can be secretary of state with no previous diplomatic experience, then Strauss can certainly be an ambassador even if he used to be a chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

On Tuesday, Bush named Strauss to take over the Moscow job from Jack Matlock, a career foreign service officer and one of the world's foremost experts on Soviet affairs. Strauss may go into the job a bit short on diplomatic expertise, but that may not matter too much because one of his first priorities will have more to do with housekeeping than diplomacy.

What Strauss needs to do _ and quickly _ is to clean up the mess that has been piling up in the Moscow embassy complex for almost two decades, a mess so horrendous that it makes you wonder if anybody's been minding the store over there.

First, the basics:

Whether or not you believe the Cold War is over, the embassy in Moscow has to be considered America's single most important overseas installation. As a contact point between the superpowers, as a listening post inside the only country that can really threaten us, America's embassy in the Soviet capital should be the best-equipped, best-staffed and most professionally managed diplomatic complex in the world. In a time of crisis, the smooth and efficient operation of the embassy just might be the difference between war and peace.

But instead of a top-flight facility worthy of its mission, America's embassy complex in Moscow is a bad joke, an embarrassment and, increasingly, a source of potentially dangerous diplomatic brinksmanship.

I remember years ago when I first walked into the embassy on Moscow's Tchaikovsky Street. The first thing that struck me was that the 10-story building was a real dump, probably a firetrap. I'd seen better American embassies in the Third World nations of west Africa.

The second thing that struck me was that the place was filled with Soviets. Receptionists, repairmen, messengers and escorts _ it seemed like most of the nuts-and-bolts jobs were being done by Soviets, even in areas of the embassy where confidential equipment and files were kept. I remember wondering how you could possibly keep secrets in a building being run by the very people you're trying to keep them from.

As it turns out, we weren't keeping many secrets in the Moscow embassy. The Soviets had the place bugged from one end to the other. They even had little devices in the electric typewriters that would transmit signals to a nearby listening post where the Soviets monitored everything that was written. They saw the important letters even before they were brought in for the American ambassador's signature.

It was no surprise then when it came out six years ago that the Soviets had already bugged the new U.S. Embassy building then under construction on an adjacent lot. The listening devices were planted so extensively throughout the concrete slabs and pilings of the new building that one Texas congressman called it "an eight-story microphone plugged into the Politburo." Construction was immediately halted and experts determined that it was impossible to remove all the bugs without tearing down the building. The almost-completed structure still stands vacant and the State Department hasn't figured out what to do with it.

And it was no surprise two years later when it came out that Soviet intelligence had suborned an American Marine sergeant into giving KGB agents free run of the old embassy building at night so they could gather top-secret data at their leisure. The damage to confidential U.S. operations was said to have been incalculable.

You probably remember the latest screw-up in Moscow.

On March 28, a fire broke out in the old embassy building that destroyed part of the roof and most of the electronic intelligence-gathering devices on the top floors. As if that wasn't enough, the embassy called the Soviets for help and they sent in KGB agents disguised as firefighters. As you might expect, their first priority wasn't the fire, but snatching up every confidential document and computer memory disk they could find.

The problems with the still-unfinished new embassy building go back to 1972 when the Nixon administration signed a construction deal that allowed Soviet workers to prefabricate all its concrete slabs and pilings. What's more, U.S. officials didn't insist on a right of inspection for possible bugging devices.

At the same time, the deal allowed the Soviets to build their own new embassy in the Mount Alto section of Washington, one of the highest points in the city. The site would have allowed Soviet monitors to listen in on most of the microwave telephone traffic within a 20-mile radius. That's an area that includes the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters.

I say "would have allowed" because when American inspectors finally discovered the bugging devices in the new embassy complex in Moscow, the Soviets were barred from using the main parts of their own new complex in Washington. That's where the matter stands now.

Last month, Congress authorized the State Department to spend $130-million in the coming fiscal year to build new office space for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. That's not nearly enough to do the job. Most estimates I've seen to either partially reconstruct the still vacant new embassy building or tear it down and start all over again start at about $280-million. The reason it's so expensive is that American materials and American workers would be shipped in to do the job this time.

Like I said, this is a housekeeping job. But it's one that Robert Strauss must attend to as soon as he's confirmed as ambassador by the Senate. The security lapses, the building debacle and covered-up bureaucratic incompetence need to be cleaned up without delay.