WASHINGTON -- The potential for NATO's military secrets spilling into enemy hands has haunted the alliance off and on for decades.
There were jitters a generation ago when Italy, a charter member of NATO, almost came under the control of the country's pro-Soviet Communist Party.
Concerns are being raised again. They do not relate to existing members of the 19-country alliance but rather to prospective ex-communist candidates for membership.
None is receiving more scrutiny than Romania, a country struggling to overcome the legacy of one of Europe's most heavy-handed communist dictatorships.
Of particular concern is the presence of numerous agents of the communist-era secret police, Securitate, in Romania's new security services.
The Securitate was the pillar upon which the 24-year regime of President Nicolae Ceausescu rested. The agency went out of business with Ceausescu's overthrow and execution in 1989.
The question now is whether the new security agencies, populated by Securitate holdovers, can be counted on to maintain the confidentiality of sensitive NATO information if Romania is invited to join.
The issue will come to a head in November when President Bush joins his fellow NATO heads of state and government in the Czech Republic to issue invitations to new members.
Romania is seeking membership along with nine other countries: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Albania, Macedonia and Croatia.
People in each country have lived under communist rule. All are subject to NATO security reviews, which examine the issue of holdover security officials from long-gone communist regimes.
A State Department official said Bulgaria, once a faithful Soviet ally, has dealt with the holdover problem reasonably well, largely because of a new legal instrument.
As for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Soviets manned the security services during the half century of Moscow's control. The new security services established since independence rely almost entirely on native populations for personnel.
Slovenia also uses host country nationals, in contrast to the pre-1990 period when the country was a part of Yugoslavia and the security services used Serbs and Croats to staff the security services.
Slovakia's chances for NATO membership will depend on the outcome of September elections that match the ruling pro-Western coalition against a former prime minister who is seen as cool to the West and to democratic norms as well. Albania, Macedonia and Croatia are given little chance of receiving NATO membership invitations.
The United States and other NATO members are being coy about which countries will be admitted. But Romania is considered highly likely to get the nod.
One of its biggest assets is its location relatively close to potential trouble spots in the Balkans, Middle East and North Africa, U.S. officials point out. It would be an ideal spot for deployment of American troops.
An additional plus for Romania is its eagerness to help the West. It has provided peacekeeping troops to Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan and soon will dispatch 400 combat troops to Afghanistan to fight alongside U.S. and British troops, the officials say.
As part of a NATO-backed reform program, Romania has cut military personnel by two-thirds and is buying modern weaponry.
The officials also say public support among Romanians for joining NATO is higher than in other candidate countries.
President Ion Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase visited Washington in November and won over Bush and other top officials by stressing strong support for Bush's war on terrorism.
Says John Hulsman, a Europe expert at the Heritage Foundation: ''Europe is more pro-American the farther east you go.''
But with Romania there are no guarantees.
In the 2000 presidential election, Iliescu was forced into a runoff by ultra-nationalist candidate Corneliu Vadim Tudor, known in official circles in Washington for his warm ties with and travels to countries on the State Department's terrorist list, including Iraq, Libya and Sudan. Iliescu, an ex-communist, won the runoff handily.
After Ceausescu was deposed as part of a widespread anti-communist upheaval in Europe in 1989, Securitate police files showed with chilling clarity how a paranoid state spied on its citizens with telephone taps, mail intercepts, photographic surveillance and paid informants.
In terms of ruthlessness, the security services of other East Bloc countries paled besides that of Securitate. It was considered on a par with the Soviet KGB.
Because of the continued Securitate influence, Hulsman calls the potential admission of Romania into NATO a ''calculated risk.''
Another problem is corruption. Officials say kickbacks to government officials in exchange for government contracts are common.
The Bush administration acknowledges that Romania has a long way to go and hopes it will persist in its reform program both before and after the November meeting in Prague.
George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
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