THE CLINTON administration has cranked up a necessary campaign to liberate the nuclear test ban treaty from the parliamentary grip of the same Sen. Jesse Helms who has endorsed Richard Holbrooke's U.N. nomination. The senator is holding the treaty hostage to a personal agenda: to move the United States immediately rather than at the administration's more measured pace to national missile defense and to spike the Kyoto global warming treaty. In hijacking the test ban, he is unswayed by the argument that in fairness the Senate deserves an opportunity to debate and judge the treaty on its merits. One wonders why his colleagues, of whatever party or test ban persuasion, let him go on.

To be sure, the test ban is not without controversy. Some people accept the Clinton view that the ban would help curb the creating and expanding of nuclear forces by others -- a goal of the utmost consequence to American security. Others see it as a potential threat to a viable long-term American nuclear posture as current weapons age. "However," says a leading specialist, Leon Sloss, "all but the most extreme fringes [of those holding the latter view] accept the [test ban] as a `done deal.' " It has been debated internationally for 40 years. The treaty itself has chalked up 152 signatures and 41 ratifications so far.

Perhaps the single most telling judgment of the test ban came in the last of seven hearings Sen. Helms chaired this year on the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, his vehicle for advancing missile defense. His star witness on May 26, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, gave his latest views -- positive -- on missile defense. Sen. Bill Frist then asked him about the test ban. Noting the "constraints" it would place, he said: "I think we have an arms control objective, and must have, to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. And anything that makes it more difficult to develop more nuclear weapons, I would, in principle, favor."

The test ban makes it more difficult to develop more nuclear weapons. In short, you can have your test ban and your missile defense, too. Missile defense is moving along. Free the test ban treaty.