WE WELCOME THE SOVIET DECISION to free Nicholas Daniloff. For some observers, this case constitutes one more bit of evidence that the Soviets have again bungled a serious international incident. But there is also good reason to believe that l'Affaire Daniloff is not just another glaring example of the Soviet lack of understanding of how strongly Americans feel when an innocent man is put in prison - as the U.S. ambassador to Hungary told a Soviet- American people to people conference.

Could not a more sensible reason for grabbing the U.S. News & World Report correspondent off the street in Moscow and charging him with spying simply be a quick Soviet reaction to what really was our own mishandling of the arrest of a minor functionary in the United Nations?Gennadi Zakharov, a Soviet physicist on the U.N. technical staff, was seized by the FBI after he tried to buy research materials from a Queens

College student majoring in computer sciences. That Mr. Zakharov was spying is not really in question. Nor is the fact that Mr. Daniloff was not spying, at least not in the way that the Western world defines the term. Both the FBI and the Soviet experts at the Department of State are well aware of the spy missions generally given to Soviet employees of the United Nations.

There are more than 400 full-time Soviet citizens employed by the United Nations, mostly in New York. According to a former U.N. undersecretary general for political and security council affairs - a Soviet national who defected to the United States two years ago - the KGB controls the affairs of all of them. While not all Soviets working for the United Nations are full-time spies for their government - such activities are contrary to the U.N. charter, incidentally - all of them know that to obtain their U.N. posting they must be prepared to perform tasks the KGB assigns them.

Who are the KGB officials who direct this spy ring? Mostly they are carried on the payroll as car drivers and clerks. The FBI knows who they are and the duties have been assigned them, including Mr. Zakharov. What caused the FBI to pounce on him when they did, and, particularly, why did they treat him as a criminal? The answers are not clear, and may never be. But somebody had to unleash the FBI for this task. Usually, the only organization that can

allow an international civil servant to be arrested is the Department of State.

It would be interesting to know the reasons for such a provocative move at a time when delicate diplomatic negotiations were being held in an effort to reach agreement on a summit meeting between President Reagan and the Soviet first secretary.

There is a new crowd at the State Department these days, brought in by the likes of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who looks for any chance it can find, or make, to do a little Soviet bashing. Our State Department, at best, is loosely run, with one desk officer not knowing what another is doing most of the time. One reason is that our ambassadors are not responsible to the secretary of state but directly to the president.

Why this ill-timed provocation, then? There is no single answer, we

suspect. Many old hands were purged out of the State Department in the past four years, their places taken by new Republican activists. In many cases, this shake-up has probably been for the better. But apparently the Soviet desk has been taken over by impatient amateurs who never heard of Tallyrand's famous advice to budding diplomats: Pas de zele (forgo zeal). It is difficult to believe that there is any place in responsible government for zealots of any persuasion, and a zealous diplomat can be a particularly dangerous person, in these days of push-button war. Perhaps the officials who approved the heavy-handed seizure of Mr. Zakharov, when a quiet expulsion order was what was needed, should be transferred to a hazardous waste cleanup squad in the Environmental Protection Agency.

It's also appropriate that a congressional investigating committee take on the job of finding out just how this minor incident was allowed to get totally out of control and escalate into a major diplomatic embarrassment to both the United States and the Soviet Union.

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