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US vacuum in handling Soviet defectors

The heads of the two most secretive United States agencies said yesterday that more should be done to fill what a Senate report called a ``vacuum'' in the US handling of Soviet-bloc defectors. The report found the US often ignores senior officials who have fled communist countries and noted some are never questioned by US officials and others languish for years performing odd jobs.

CIA Director William Webster said his agency had assigned more experienced officers to handle defectors from the Soviet KGB and its allied spy agencies following the highly publicized ``re-defection'' of Vitaly Yurchenko in 1985.

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``There has been a substantial increase in the number of intelligence officers assigned to this work and a shift in emphasis,'' Mr. Webster said in his first public testimony before Congress since becoming director of central intelligence.

Webster and Lt. Gen. William Odom, head of the National Security Agency, said that much more could be done to use the experience of Soviet-bloc defectors who are not of immediate interest to US intelligence.

``Can we take better advantage of the talents and knowledge they bring? The answer is yes, but the ways to do that are not easy to find,'' said Odom, whose agency intercepts and deciphers the electronic communications of other nations.

Odom described two programs that the US Army runs to harness the skills of Soviet defectors for the study of the Red Army. Senate investigators have also pointed to those programs as models of how to tap the unique insights of Soviet defectors.

Those programs offer jobs to a limited number of defectors and help in adapting to the free societies of the West, which can be confusing to those brought up in totalitarian systems.

But, in many cases, Odom told the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, he has perceived ``a genuine hostility to the views of these 'emigr'es. Many American scholars have a much more benign view of the USSR than do most 'emigr'es,'' he said.

``We must better learn how to assist and utilize the genuine defector, who usually arrives at our doorstep in his flight for freedom with nothing more than the shirt on his back,'' said Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who heads the subcommittee and ordered the investigation.

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``If we as a society ignore [the defector], we may be turning our backs on the very important contributions he can make, contributions which can be extremely valuable keys [to] a society which is otherwise shielded from us by a huge police and intelligence apparatus,'' Nunn said.

Both Webster and Odom were interviewed by investigators who concluded that ``a vacuum exists in current government programs for the systematic identification and productive integration of a significant group of defectors into US public life.''

The government, the Senate report said, should find more ways to use and to aid Soviet-bloc defectors whose experience as diplomats, economists, scientists, or soldiers could give key insights into communist systems.

``The staff found that defectors are not `squeezed like a lemon and thrown away,' as commonly alleged in the Soviet press,'' the report said.

``Instead, most defectors seem to wish they had been `squeezed' a little more....''

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