Paul Warnke's White House status, just one year after President Carter forced his confirmation as chief disarmament negotiator through a reluctant Senate, dropped so low the last weekend of January that his future role seems clouded.
Warnke outraged the president's men when his Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) leaked to the press its opposition to selling 60 F-15 warplanes to Saudi Arabia - a transaction deemed critically important by Carter. In response, the White House that weekend subjected Warnke and his key lieutenants to treatment calculated, in the words of one senior Carter aide, "to make life miserable for them."
Beyond the F-15 deal, the White House is not happy with Warnke as public advocate for the SALT II agreement he is negotiating with the Soviet Union. Less clearly, the dissatisfaction extends to Warnke's actual netgotiating performance, including fears he may be making too many concessions. Most remarkable is the White House desire to reveal overall complaints about Warnke, an early Carter supporter and longtime stalwart in the arms-control community.
The dissatisfaction crystalized in the issue of planes to Saudi Arabia, because that question is perceived within the White House as a test case of whether the president can set his own Mideast policy without Israel's veto. The State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council join the president in supporting jets for the Saudis. Only Warnke's ACDA backs Israel's position.
Taking this stand in private is one thing; airing it in public is quite another. Other administration officials blamed ACDA for a Washington Post report last September revealing the agency's opposition to the F-15 deal. The Washington Star revealed Jan. 28 that a Warnke letter to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance opposing the sale had been leaked to congressional friends of Israel.
That guaranteed a troubled weekend at the White House and even more so at ACDA. After one year as presidential press secretary, Jody Powell has learned the futility of tracking down leaks. But he was certain the leak came from ACDA, probably sanctioned by its director. Powell, an Air Force Academy cadet when Warnke was a senior Defense Department official in the Johnson administration, performed his version of the Chinese water torture.
Powell placed three telephone calls to Warnke in Geneva (scene of the arms talks) and six calls to other ACDA officials in Washington. Of all those calls spaced over the weekend of Jan. 28-29, not one mentioned Warnke's leaked letter. Instead, the ACDA officials were ordered to supply the White House immediately with all manner of information and documents on the F-15 transaction.
"If they were going to spoil my weekend," Powell later told a friend, "I sure was going to spoil theirs. The only difference was I could do it from home, while they had to go down to the office." Apart from having their weekends disrupted, Warnke and his lieutenants could scarcely have failed to connect the White House harassment with th F-15 leak.
This is remarkable treatment for Warnke, a Washington superlawyer whom the president insisted on as chief SALT negotiator despite protest from defense-oriented Democrats. It could only have happened if Powell's displeasure was shared within the Oval Office itself.
Facing an uphill battle to ratify a Warnke House strategists wince at the imperious Warnke's selling the treaty to Congress. They also grumble that Warnke has stacked ACDA with pillars of the arms-control community, lacking even a few good old boys who might help on Capitol Hill.
Whether the president himself is displeased with Warnke's performance as negotiator is unclear. But there is no question about feeling on the National Security Council staff that Warnke is a little too soft. Warnke has deviated from administration doctrine by claiming U.S. strategic superiority and denying the vulnerability of Minuteman missiles.
Symbolic of Warnke's decline is the administration's decision to suspend Warnke-led negotiations with the Soviet Union over naval limitations in the Indian Ocean. Warnke had advocated voluntarily abandoning use of the Diego Garcia base in return for the Russians' being ejected from Berbera in Somalia, amidst escalating Soviet military involvement in the Horn of Africa.
Jimmy Carter does not publicly criticize officials, much less publicly regret their appointment. But the elaborate harassment contrived by Jody Powell should make Warnke wonder whether there are second thoughts about him in the White House.