Are Embassies EVER Really Intrusted With Top_Secret Stuff?

One of the stock items of fiction is the story about a spy infiltrating a foreign embassy, and stealing all kinds of secrets! I very much doubt that our embassies abroad are ever really in posession of much really sensitive materials. This is for several reasons:
-most ambassadors are political appointees. Some are such dolts (like Reagan’s ambassador to Australia), that it wouldn’t be wise to give them ANYTHING top secret…“anybody here speak english”?
-one can safetly assume that the host country has bugged embassy buildings very well. The Russians implanted bugs in the US Embassy in Moscow, as the building was being constructed!
-why would you use your embassy as a base for spies? Embassies arein publicly acessedplaces, and are easy to keep a watch on!
Most espionage today seems to be handled from the home country. I can’t imagine that a bungling politically-appointed ambassador would be anything but a hindrance in running spies.
So, areembassies really places that spies like to break in to?

I can see this will end up in IMHO in short order, as I don’t see a debate.

Virtually every embassy in the world has top-secret material in the house. Many embassies have overt CIA stations, even more have covert agents working there. Without getting too specific, there is a lot of classified equipment in an embassy such as Moscow or London or Cairo, and sophisticated means to destroy it, if necessary. The days of trying to set documents on fire with a match are long over, and the shredders used nowadays make it impossible to reconstruct documents. Top secret documents are not only present, but are common.

I can’t offer cites for the above, only my personal work experience in embassies all over Europe and in Africa.

As to Presidents’ poor choices for ambassadors, don’t get me started!

Having worked many years in the communications relay facility for State Dept, I’ll second everything that Chefguy posted. There are more than a few things that might interest a spy in our embassies and consulates.

::tumbleweed rolls by, lone dog barks forlornly in the distance::

Heck, even us Canadians got a chunk of the embassy-spy stuff. In his book Spyworld, former Communications Security Establishment (our hush-hush agency for monitoring electronic communications) spook Mike Frost describes an operation where they sent a big steel safe to the Canadian embassy in Caucescu-era Rumania (NOT a nice place to be) and cut out the bottom of it with welding torches to use it as the case for an electromagnetic monitoring station, tapping into microwave phone networks and whatnot (they needed a big steel box for some reason). Frost described lying in the cramped dark sweltering attic, turning a parabolic dish one degree at a time, seeing what he could pick up. As far as Frost knew when he retired, the safe was still there in the embassy.

As an amusing side anectdote (though it didn’t seem so at the time, I’m sure), when Frost entered Rumania, the paranoid dictatorship required visitors to supply two photographs of themselves, with the clear but unstated goal of aiding in surveillance and monitoring. Frost was waiting in line at customs and on some impulse, looked at the backs of his photographs to find some beaurocratic imbecile has stamped “COMMUNICATIONS SECURITY ESTABLISHMENT” on them; the equivalent of carrying a neon sign saying “SPY”. Frost described eating the photographs on the spot and bluffing his way past the wary customs officials.

As an incidental note, the Ambassadors themselves may be appointed goofballs, but the people who do the day-to-day work of handling and processing classified material are career civil servants/military personnel, and that doesn’t even count the actual intelligence agents who may be assigned to specific embassies and consuls for specific missions. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if many senior beaurocrats had gone out of their way not to share critical information with their appointed masters, knowing they’d just screw it up or spill the beans at some drunken embassy party.

If I might, I’d like to ask a related question. U.S. Ambassadors are all appointed, correct? Then the choice ones like Italy or France or the UK must go to some of the administrations best friends, sometimes with family or ethnic ties to the country involved. There probably are a thousand Bush supporters who would love to be the ambassador to France, for example. How about some of the “less desirable” countries? Are there really people standing in line to be ambassador say to Nigeria or Laos or some other place with oppressive heat and little in the way of attractions?

There’s a list of countries that have relations with the US that, for the most part, run themselves: UK, New Zealand, Belgium, etc. These are prime slots for friends of the President.

Next, there’s a handful of countries that are very important, but the job is harder: Russia, Japan, China, etc. Generally speaking, the ambassadors to these countries are very well politically connected, but also very capable people from outside the State Department. (Take Japan: the last few US ambassadors to Japan have included Howard Baker (fmr Senate Majority Leader, still serving in Tokyo), Tom Foley (fmr Speaker), Walter Mondale (fmr VP), and Mike Mansfield (fmr Senate Majority Leader).

Then for the rest of the countries, the ambassadors are drawn from the senior levels of the State Dept’s foreign service. It is much more common that these folks will know the region, and often speak the language very well.

That was an outstanding answer, Ravenman. Thank you for the reply.

Appreciate the info, but what on earth was so valuable about intelliegence on Rumania? From what I read, Ceaucescue’s Rumania was a little chunk of Stalinist Hell, and an economic basket case as well. According to my russian friends, this guy (Ceaucescue) was considered such a nutter (by the KGB) that very little in the way of secret intelligence was ever shared with them. The Rumanian Secirite (the equivilent of the KGB) was a bunch of low grade bumblers as well…all important assinations were left to the Bulgarians.
Somehow the thought of high-level espionage in Rumania seems like mostly low comedy!

Hey, don’t try to downplay the Canadian contribution to the Cold War, you hoser!

I can also confirm that Top Secret stuff goes to embassies (and from) all the time. My first job out of school was working for a USAID contractor subbed out the the State Department. I had my super-duper TS clearance and everything. And my job was largely to make sure documents of all levels of clearance got routed properly for abstracting and archiving both in DC and out at the embassies.

On the subject of appointees I had a fairly good pal who was the wife of a lifer over at the State Department. He told me that all the plum posts are reserved for the well-connected but that not-so-sweet ones would be often given as rewards to the Foreign Service folks on their going-away missions. So after 20-25 years is the FS they’d be given the ambassadorship to say, Lesotho, as a final reward for all their good work.

You’re not obligated to let the host country build your embassy nor forbidden to make any modification to the building.

In embassies, there are (or there can be) “blank” rooms for really secret conversations. Kind of bunkers protected from bugs by any mean imaginable and used solely for this purpose. And I doubt you would let the host country build those.

from the old "Get Smart TV Show? It was a plastic dome that got lowered over a conversing couyple…only you had to YELL to make yourself heard!
Supposedly, the US Embassy in Moscow was so full of bugs that it was never used! The Russians had a nasty habit of beaming microwaves at the windows…conversations inside would modulate the reflected microwave beams, and be recorded.
Lots of US embassy staff got cancer!

[Moderator Hat ON]

Since this question can have a factual answer, I am moving it to General Questions.

[Moderator Hat OFF]

By the way, I always find weird that the US appoint unaknowledgeable people as ambassadors in important countries.

French ambassadors are always career diplomats. They begin as under-secretary in Lesotho, to keep the same example than an another poster, and end their career as ambassador in China, generally mixing in-between various jobs in the ministery of foreign affairs, or other diplomatic duties.
For instance, the current french ambassador in the USA began his career as vice-consul in Honk-Kong. He held various jobs (at the presidency, in the ministery of foreign affairs, at the UN, etc…), but always in the diplomatic field, and towards the end of his career at a very high level (Director of foreign affairs for Asia and Oceania, negociator for the president, french representant at the UN…) .
Not only for security reason, but even for political reasons, I can’t understand that someone could be randomly appointed as ambassador just as a reward to make him/her happy. Such people would be doomed to cause major problems. Actually, it seems so absurd that I came to assume that an american ambassador is just a flower pot (a little like the queen of England…representing his country, but without any actual powers or real duties) and that the embassies are actually ran by real diplomats who are in charge of the serious stuff.
Is my assumption correct? Is an US ambasador merely granted a prestigious but only honorary job, as I suspect?

When building the embassy in Moscow, the US was foolish enough to use a Soviet contractor. The building infested with bugs. Here’s a nice summary of the debacle. They had to demolish the top of the embassy and build secure floors for sensitive operations and use the bugged floors below for more public activity.

In support of most everything above, I’ll add that in my understanding, the State Department has essentially three “segments”; the Diplomats, the Security Folks, and the People Who Do The Work (“PWDTW”, all the support professionals). I seriously considered going the State Dept route when I left the Marines, I had the paperwork and everything almost filled out to apply to be a Diplomatic Security Officer. I had talked to one DSO in particular stationed overseas (Bahrain) and got the skinny on how things worked. I have also talked with many Marines who had been on Embassy Duty to get their take. Some of the Diplomats can hold a secret ALMOST as well as a U.S. Congressman, so there is a constant “struggle” between the Diplomats and the Security folks on, well, security. The PWDTW seem to be good at holding back what needs to be held back.

See my post above, number 8.

There are two main embassy buildings in Moscow: The EOB (existing office building) and the NOB (new office building). Both buildings occupy the same city block along with a housing complex that includes a bowling alley, a theater and a commissary.

The infamous NOB was built by the Soviets with the personal blessings of Richard Nixon, who basically gave away the store. The NOB was built on the existing property, near the river, in a hollow, and surrounded by the “Ugly Sisters”, a series of neo-gothic Soviet buildings stuffed full of surveillance gear. In exchange, the Soviets were allowed to build their own embassy in WDC on prime land, on a hill overlooking the Capitol buildings!

The NOB is occupied and used today, but not by any sensitive offices. Those remain in the EOB, which is a hellish place to work.

Romania, like many embassies, was (and probably still is) a CIA listening post. The Bucharest embassy building (unless it’s been relocated) is in an historical structure with some beautiful frescoes. The Soviets loved to piss on royal history and religion by giving palaces to the U.S. and others to butcher up and use as embassies. The one in Prague is a prime example.