The State Department announced yesterday that chief U.S. negotiators Sol Linowitz and Ellsworth Bunker are opening new talks with the Panamanians to clarify language in the canal treaties.
The new talks were initiated following a controversy over whether Panama accepts U.S. contentions that the treaties give the United States future rights to intervene militarily againt threat to the canal and to obtain priority passage for U.S. ships in time of war.
The apparent differences in interpretation were disclosed in a confidential State Department cable obtained and made public this week by Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), a treaty opponent.
The cable released by Dole - a message from the U.S. embassy in Panama - described one of the Panamanian treaty negotiators, Carlos Lopez Guevara, as disagreeing that the treaty language guarantees these rights for the United States.
That, in turn, caused several influential, uncommitted senators to warn Carter administration officials that, unless it clarifies these apparent differences in interpretation, there is little chance that the treaties will gain the 67 votes - two-thirds of the Senate - required for their approval.
Dole took the Senate floor yesterday to charge that the State Department had complained to the Senate Ethics Committee about his action in releasing the cable.
The department denied that it was seeking an investigation or disciplinary action against Dole. But it admitted that a member of its congressional relations staff had contacted the Ethics Committee "to request information" on Senate rules governing disclosure of classified information.
Dole characterized the move as a "clear effort at intimidation."
Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) rushed to Dole's defense, deploring the administration's alleged action and warned: "If that's the game they're going to play, all their treaties are going to be having a tough time."
In private, administration officials stuck to their contention that there is really no dispute between the two governments on the meaning of the treaties. They predicted that the matter eventually will be cleared up to the Senate's satisfaction.
However, these officials added, the clarification isn't likely to come until after Panama holds a national plebiscite on the treaties scheduled for Oct. 23. The problem, they said, is that Panama's military ruler, Gen. Omar Torrijos, has encountered unexpectedly stiff opposition from Panamanian leftists who charge that the treaties give too much to the United States.
As a result, they said, the Torrijos government has been forced to make public statements minimizing what the treaties say on sensitive points such as U.S. rights to defend the canal after it passes to Panamanian control.
"The trouble is that these statements get repeated up here, and the anti-treaty people are able to hit us over the head with them in the Senate debate," one source said.
The officials also conceded that, at a time when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is two-thirds of the way through its three weeks of hearings on the treaties, the fight to line up votes for the pacts has become increasingly difficult.
The administration had looked on the hearings as "a forum to educate the Senate and public" on the need for the treaties. But, last week when top administration officials were presenting their case, treaty opponents were able to divert the public's attention to a murky and still unresolved allegation that wiretapping and blackmail had figured in the negotiations.
Similarly, Dole's release of the cable succeeded in making this week's hearings focus on the alleged differences of interpretation about U.S. defense rights and again put the pro-treaty forces on the defensive.