A secret FBI request for more counterintelligence agents, though blocked on Capitol Hill, has touched off a sharp debate over the dangers of an alleged Soviet-bloc spy influx into the United States.
At closed budget authorization hearings this year, FBI officials told the House Intelligence Committee that there were more suspected Soviet KGB and East European intelligence officers coming into this country on temporary visas than the bureau could possibly watch without beefing up its counterintelligence division.
The FBI's friends in Congress charge that State Department permissiveness is to blame for the influx. The debate is strikingly reminiscent of the internal security furor of the early 1950s.
Both the House and the Senate Intelligence committees turned down the FBI's request to hire about 125 more counterintelligence agents to step up surveillance activities. Rep. Bill D. Burlison (D-Mo.) devised a compromise that proved even more controversial.
It would make the two intelligence panels custodians of a new list supplied by the attorney general. On it would go the names of all aliens temporarily admitted to the United States in the coming fiscal year despite advice by the FBI that they should have been kept out as security risks.
House conservatives such as John M. Ashbrook (R-Ohio) say the influx is distressing and blame it on the travel relazations fostered by the Helsinki accords and legislation adopted last year under the sponsorship of Sen. George McGovern (D.S.D.).
"This has opened the floodgates to communists, terrorists, espionage agents and other security problems." Ashbrook maintains, 'would say they have let scores of (such) people in.'
House liberals argue against keeping lists of supposed security risks. Rep. Ted Weiss (D.N.Y.) contended it would represent "the first step backward toward the creation of a Committee on Internal Security" - better known in its list-building heyday as the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Legally, the debate [WORD ILLEGIBLE]down to a never settled controversy over the so-called security provisions" of the Immigration and Nationality Act - better known as the McCarran Walter. Act when it was passed over President Truman's veto in 1952 - and how strictly those provisions should be applied.
According to figures supplied by the FBI the bureau has lost almost every time in the past several years when it recommended that a foreign visitor were overruled (or ignored) 87 percent of the time; in 1977, they were overruled 99 percent of the time, and in the first quarter of 1978, they were overruled 100 percent of the time.
"The people at State probably say the FB's seeing a lot of bogymen, but if they can move that easily into the country, it gets to be a frustrating thing after a while," says a Justice Department source.
"They're talking about the kind of people who steal secrets," says another department source. "The problem is not that they inevitably will do that, but when you've got an inelligence officer in your midst, the FBI feels they ought to know what they're doing, who they're seeing."
The number of individuals admitted over FBI objections is said to be classified, but according to several sources it comes to between 100 and 150 people a year, primarily from Soviet-block nations.
"There are many more American ports (a total of 400 open to ships and crewmen from Russia and Warsaw Pact nations," Burlison said.
"There also seems to be an inordinate number of so-called 'students' in their 30s and 40s coming in. A great deal of concern has been expressed publicly and privately . . . We just want to keep current on it."
On the other hand, as State Department officials point out, the "security provisions" of immigration law are far from precise. And the intelligence information on which decisions are based is often inconclusive.
"Say there's an Ivan Ivanov who was reported to be a KGB agent in Timbuktu in 1959 - and an Ivan Ivanov who is applying to come to the United States," says a State Department visa expert. "Is it the same Ivan Ivanov? Was he really a KGB agent in Timbuktu in 1959? Some of the intelligence we have in ancient history. It comes in all shadings and gradations."
The issue first came up this year when the FBI asked the House and Senate intelligence panels for 125 more counterintelligence personnel on the grounds that the bureau had more spies to watch, some presumably around the clock. Unpersuaded, the Senate committee turned down the request with the under-standing that the bureau could try again later if it came up with more convincing evidence.
Burlison, chairman of the House Intelligence subcommittee on budget authorization, hit on another alternative: requiring the attorney general to inform the Senate and House intelligence panels of the admission of each alien whom the attorney general knows or has reason to believe "is an excludable alien under the terms of Section 212 (a) (27), (28) or (29) or the Immigration and Nationality Act."
Unfortunately, Carter administration officials say, the issue was clouded by the House debate, which focused heavily on Section 28, a so-called "membership" provision that permits the denial of visas to anarchists, communists and others. The attorney general can waive those restrictions, and thousands of waivers are granted each year, some under the provisions of the McGovern amendment.
Adopted last August in "the spirit of Helsinki," the amendment requires the secretary of state to recommend Justice Department approval of a temporary visa for any foreigner whose only shortcoming is "membership in or affiliation with a prescribed organization."
The attorney general can still refuse to grant the waiver. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which acts for the attorney general in such matters, the amendment has had only a modest impact and its implementation has yet to stir a single objection from the FBI.
The real fuss is over the other two sections. Nos. 27 and 29. One calls for th erejection of any foreigner known or reasonably believed to be coming to the United States "to engage in activities which would be prejudicial to the public interest, or endanger the welfare, safety or security of the United States."
The other provision requires exclusion of any visitor who "probably would, after entry, engage in activities which would be prohibited by the laws of the United States relating to espionage, sabotage, public disorder, or in any other activity subversive to the national security . . ."
In the letter to House Intelligence Committee Chirman Edward P. Boland (D-Mass), Assistant Secretary of State Douglas J. Bennet Jr. described the procedure Visas are issued by consular officers overseas after State Department review of "information on file with the agencies of the intelligence community." The visas authorize travel to the United States, where "the Immigration and Naturalization Service - a Department of Justice component - makes the final decision" on behalf of the attorney general.
From the FBI's point of view, the trouble is it is often too late to make an effective objection when someone lands here, visa in hand. The FBI is supposed to be consulted before the visa is issued overseas, but sometimes, according to several knowledgeable officials, the visa is issued first.
The foreign visitor would have to be refused admission if he or she were held to fall under Sections 27 or 29, but the bureau keeps losing those arguments.
Officials agree this could change in light of President Carter's reported approval of a reorganization plan that would, among other things, shift the decision making authority for visa applications from State to the Immigration Service. Yet that is where it supposedly has been all along as far as the "security provisions" are concerned.
"The two questions you've got to ask are what is the guy planning to do and is it against the law or is it subversive to th national security," says a State Department official. "Even when you're dealing with a specific internal security statute, you can run into perfectly legitimate differing views, especially on 'activity subversive to the national security.'"
During the House debate, Burlison declared that the FBI "does not, as a matter of policy, request exclusion of all identified or suspected intelligence officers" seeking to enter the United States, but some administration officials content the bureau is still too skittish.
"On a few of these (visas), really a very limited number, the FBI will object," says INS spokesman Silas J. Jervis. "We have to weight between the recommendations. The last few years, it's gone in favor of State. Their reasoning has seemed more compelling."
Even so, the House voted 312 to 60 to require reports of contested admiissions from the attorney general. Boland assured his colleagues that the House Intelligence Committee had no intention of becoming another HUAC, and agreed to require the reports only for fiscal 1979.
The committee may not even get that much. Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner is writing a letter to Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) to express the administration's opposition to the provision. According to a Justice Department lawyer, the requirement as passed by the House doesn't make much sense anyway.
"The language is all screwed up," he said. "If you read it carefully, it asks the attorney general to tell Congress when aliens who fall under Sections 27 or 29 have been admitted to the United States. But if they fall under Sections 27 or 29, they can't be admitted. As the legislation stands now, it asks the attorney general to report those instances to COngress where the attorney general has violated the law."