President Carter's senior advisers, sharply divided along departmental and philosophical lines, have recommended 3 to 2 that he stop the sale to the Soviet Union of sophisticated oil drilling equipment that was approved by the administration only three weeks ago.
Informed official sources said this was the upshot of an unannounced White House meeting Monday afternoon involving presidential national security affairs adviser Zbigmew Brzezinski and senior officials of the State. Commerce, Defense and Energy departments to discuss the $144 million sale by Dresser Industriesof Dallas.
There is no indication of the views or the likely decision of Carter, who is scheduled to return to washington today after a vacation in the West. The disputedcase is likely to cause embarrassment and political and bureaucratic sniping whether he reverses the previous administration decision or lets it stand under heavy fire.
Energy Secretary James R, Schlesinger Jr.,who is strongly opposed the sale to the Soviets and fired off a protest memorandum to the White House shortly after its approval was reported Aug. 10, is believed to be a moving force behind reconsideration of the government licenses involved.
A second doubter has been Brzezinski. who reportedly was extremely unhappy that the licenses were approved at a time of political tension with the Soviet Union. Another element in the situation has been strong and continuing oppostition to the sale from Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.). whose Governmental Affairs subcommittee has begun an investigation into the case.
A changed position by the Defense Department, which had cleared the sale but now has developed strong doubts, is an important new element in the situation, according to administration officials. Deputy Secretary of Defense Charles W. Duncan Jr., representing the Pentagon in the absence of vacationing Secretary Harold Brown, reportedly joined Schlesinger and Brzezinski on Monday in recommending that the Dressser sale be suspended immediately pending a thorough review of government policy on the supply of sophiscated energy technology to the Soviet Union.
Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in the absence of vacationing Secretary Cyrus R. Vance, is reportedly to have opposed stopping the sale while a study of broader policy proceeds. Sources said he was joined by Commerce Secretary Juanita M. Kreps.
Adding urgency to the opponents' view at the White House meeting were reports that Soviet technicians are already on hand at the Dresser plant near Dallas to acquire know-how about the complex and advanced equipment.
The Dresser transaction, one of the largest U.S. Soviet deals in recent years, would supply the Soviet Union woth technology and equipment to build its own plant to manufacture oil field drilling bits. Most of the licenses involved were approved by the Carter administration May 30.
Special high-level scrutiny for future exports of oil technology to the Soviet Union was ordered by Carter in mid-July, following the Soviet political trials of dissidents Anatoly Scharansky and Alexander Ginzburg. A $1 million electron-beam welding machine, an important part of the Dressor deal was swept up in this order and subjected to special review.
Commerce Department approval of the welding machine license, following consultations with other departments, was reported by The Washington Post Aug.10 - the first that some high officials, including Schlesinger and Brzezinske, had heard of it. Some sources said there is a dispute within the government over whether Carter knew at the time that the energy chief was opposed to the sale.
At a White House meeting Aug. 18. Schlesinger and Brzezinski reportedly pressed for an independent review of the disputed licenses. Brown, Vance and Kreps did not object, and the review was undertaken by the Defense Department's Defense Science Board.
The study, by a panel headed by J. Fred Bucy, president of Texas Instruments, reported Friday that there were valid grounds for concern about possible military uses of the technology being sold to the Soviet Union, as well as doubt about the advisability of helping the Russians develop their vast energy reserves.
The larger policy question of U.S. cooperation with the Soviet Union on energy development involves a host of strategic, economic and political issues, and could take much time and debate to resolve.