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Security hysteria?


IN THE WAKE of the Wen Ho Lee saga, which is by no means over, and fears of compromising security leaks, classified Washington has gone haywire. Laxity has been replaced by zeal and inter-departmental sniping.

This is a problem for the CIA, which found its former director downloaded secret material onto an unsecured computer that could be accessed by Internet. What to do when John Deutch had apparently done the one thing they could pin on a scientist publicly suspected of being a spy?

This gets worse for the State Department. A bug was found there, placed by a Russian spy. A laptop carrying classified arms control data went missing. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was humiliated.

She did what any besieged top officeholder does. She transferred the heat to subordinates, warning diplomats that any security lapse was "intolerable and inexcusable."

The trouble with this, according to anecdotal accounts from diplomats, is that many do it. They take work home. They lug laptops onto planes and read and write during flight.

Anyway, the FBI may have caught the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, at this. He was suspended from security clearance pending investigation. His usefulness as an intermediary in Middle East peacemaking appears over.

That's too bad. Israel-Palestinian negotiations are at a critical stage. And he has been very useful indeed, having worked decades on Arab-Israeli relations and maintained a special rapport with Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Israelis, who live with national security problems Americans can hardly imagine, are accustomed to casual procedures by leaders. They find the fall of Mr. Indyk bizarre, not to mention unhelpful.

Even though this is an election year, official Washington needs to get a grip. What's wrong for anyone with secret clearance is wrong for all and spies must be caught. But common sense must come into play. Otherwise, national security would be compromised more by the security cops than by those they police.

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