President Carter has assembled a group of senior "wise men" to advise him on the steps the United States should take in dealing with the presence of Soviet combat troops in Cuba, White House officials confirmed last night.
The bipartisan group, named earlier in the week, is headed by former defense secretary Clark Clifford and includes other former government officials with experience in advising presidents on foreign policy and intelligence matters, the White House officials said.
"We're doing what presidents usually do in a situation like this," said one official in confirming the appointment of the group, which was first reported by CBS. "You get in a group of wise men, give them a full briefing and ask their advice and obviously hope to build some consensus for your position."
Clifford could not be reached last night, nor could the names of the other members of the group be learned immediately.
The Clifford group began its task Tuesday when it was briefed at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters on the basis for the president's charge that the 2,500 Soviet troops in Cuba constitute a combat brigade. Soviet officials have denied the troops are a combat unit and have accused the United States of spreading "falsehoods" and "propaganda" about the troops.
Carter turned to the panel for advice as negotiations with the Soviets over the troops issue appeared to be nearing an impasse. In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko suggested that the dispute should be considered closed. His comments came after he reportedly had offered no concessions in earlier private talks on the issue with Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance.
The president, meanwhile, has established an informal deadline for resolution of the dispute by negotiations. He said in New York Tuesday night that he will report to the nation in about a week on the steps he will take to resolve the troops issue.
"There are two ways to change the status quo," Carter said. "One is by the action of the Soviet Union. If the Soviets fail to act, then the other way to change the status quo is by action on the part of the United States, and I want to report to the nation probably within the next week after we get through with our negotiations with the Soviet Union [on] what action I will take . . ."
It is clear that by turning to a panel of outside, senior advisers, including Republicans, the president hopes to build the basis for broad, bipartisan support for whatever he decides. White House officials spoke in terms of "developing a consensus" on the troops issue, which has already seriously jeopardized the chances for Senate approval this year of the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II) with the Soviet Union.
Carter took a somewhat similar step last December when the crisis in Iran began to deepen. In that case he turned for advice to George W. Ball, undersecretary of state in the Kennedy administration. Ball later reported that the United States should encourage the Shah of Iran to move quickly toward a broadly based civilian government before he lost any chance of surviving as leader of that country.
Ball's report came at a time when the administration was giving full support to the shah, who was eventually toppled from his throne by rioting and discord that spread in succeeding weeks through Iran.
White House officials said the Clifford group reviewed U.S. intelligence data on the Soviet troops as a first step in advising the president and not as a check on the accuracy of the data.
The review, one official said, is not "a reflection on the CIA and not a reflection on the accuracy of any judgments we have made."
While Soviet officials have denied that the troops are a combat unit, Carter in recent days has grown more adamant in insisting that they are. In New York Tuesday night, the president said, "The Soviets deny that it has combat status. But it is a combat unit located in a country, in this hemisphere, that is totally dependent on the Soviet Union."
Carter added, as he has before, that "the status quo is not acceptable to us," a formulation that seems to suggest U.S. willingness to accept something less than total withdrawal of the troops.