On Dec. 3, as Washington tensed in agreeable anticipation of the long-awaited superpower summit, the Soviet Union gave the United States another lesson in using the clock as a deadly negotiating weapon by delivering what one administration official called ''an ultimatum.''

On that day in Geneva, Soviet negotiators warned that if the INF agreement could not be signed Dec. 8, when Mikhail Gorbachev joined Ronald Reagan in the White House, ''there will be no treaty.'' The draft contained more than 100 ''bracketed'' clauses, signifying major differences between U.S. and Soviet positions. They ranged from new landing rights for U.S. inspectors in East Berlin to advance notice of ''transit routes'' of Soviet SS-20 missiles on their way to destruction.

With the cherished summit in jeopardy, the Soviets quickly won their points. The United States gave in on nearly all disputed clauses, including the advance notice of transit routes. That permitted the Gorbachev-Reagan signing Dec. 8, marking the latest round of pell-mell treaty-writing that confused even the document's own drafters. But the agreement is now elevated to untouchable status before such details are revealed in Senate hearings, as they were eight years ago in the case of SALT II.

This bypassed much of the grinding, nitty-gritty work of negotiators in Geneva intended to close loopholes. Once the Soviet Dec.-8-or-never demand for signing arrived here, the back channel set up between Washington and Moscow blew away one Geneva deadlock after another.

Here was a replay of times past when back channels undermined U.S. negotiators of earlier nuclear treaties. Left behind in those cases were disputes that, in the case of the ABM treaty, are still far from solution. Always the big loser in this costly method of treaty-making is the United States.

Damage potential crystallized in a faceoff over CBS's ''Face the Nation'' Nov. 29 between Secretary of State George Shultz and Sen. Steve Symms, a conservative Republican manning the Senate's thin anti-treaty ranks. Symms revealed that the United States had ''never seen'' the SS-20 missile, or even a picture of it. Asked separately about that, Shultz said that ''contrary'' to Symms, the SS-20 ''does have a distinctive signature'' He thus ignored Symms' damning disclosure that the United States never had seen the SS-20 or a good photographic image of it.

Shultz is no technician. He may have been unaware that the United States had to rely on satellite photographs of the garages in which the missile is housed. When the United States finally demanded a picture of the missile itself, nothing happened for days. When the photo arrived only last week, it was fuzzy and unclear, useless as a verification yardstick.

Thus the United States signed the treaty without ever seeing a clear picture of the major Soviet weapon it outlaws. That outrages technicians who spent long months negotiating the INF agreement, only to see it snatched away -- incomplete.

The United States also rushed to sign before it could possibly complete evaluation of the Soviet ''data base'' (the specifics on numbers of SS-20 missiles and five lesser weapons the treaty is supposed to destroy). Raw information on these missiles was not handed over until signing day, Dec. 8.

Where does this leave American security? In the dark. The Soviets gave American negotiators at least four different versions of their existing arsenal of SS-20s between Oct. 26 and Dec. 3. On Nov. 18, they claimed a total of 614 missiles; on Nov. 21 that had grown to 650. So, the puzzling question: How many of these missiles that they have pledged to destroy do the Soviets really have? Only the Kremlin knows.

Ambiguities proliferate. An estimated 20 ground facilities not acknowledged by the Soviets as in any way connected to the SS-20, or to any of the other banned missiles, are now considered ''suspect sites'' by U.S. intelligence. Detected only by accident, they exhibit characteristics closely associated with the banned missiles.

So confused was the helter-skelter rush to treaty signing that flustered U.S. technicians on at least two occasions handed false information to the Soviets about their own missile forces and factories. Those mistakes were accidental. Soviet concealment and misinformation are endemic, historical and far more widespread.

Senate critics intend to explore in depth this risky method of writing life-or-death agreements. Their professed aim is not defeat of the treaty but Senate approval of reservations or amendments. They really want to prevent similar, more dangerous handling of the forthcoming treaty to reduce intercontinental missiles. Regrettably, with both sides aiming for spring in Moscow, negotiation under deadline already has begun.

1987, North America Syndicate, Inc.