Secretary of State George P. Shultz persuaded President Reagan to preserve key limits of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty in an emotionally charged meeting with a few top officials at the White House last Friday, administration sources said yesterday.
Reagan's decision, announced by Shultz in San Francisco on Monday, partially reversed a shift in policy announced a week earlier by White House national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane and strongly advocated by Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.
Shultz, McFarlane, Weinberger and Director Kenneth L. Adelman of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency are reported to have been the only officials present with Reagan when a new ABM policy was formulated in what one administration source called a "knock-down, drag-out meeting."
CBS News reported last night that Shultz won the day after "a subtle threat of resignation" by the secretary of state was conveyed to the White House. A State Department spokesman quoted Shultz as saying the CBS account was "nonsense."
Backing up Shultz's appeal to Reagan, official sources said, were diplomatic messages of sharp concern on the ABM issue from the West German and British governments and the argument of Paul H. Nitze, the U.S. special arms control adviser, that a shift in U.S. policy on the ABM Treaty at this time would cause a storm among U.S. allies and arms control advocates in Congress on the eve of the U.S.-Soviet summit meeting.
The topic at issue was the legal interpretation of the 1972 ABM Treaty, which the United States for 13 years has construed as limiting testing and development of antiballistic missile systems based on exotic technologies such as lasers and directed energy weapons. Many elements of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" program, are based on such exotic technology.
A new Pentagon legal study, endorsed by State Department legal adviser Abraham D. Sofaer, argued that the Soviet negotiators in 1969-72 never accepted the limits on exotic technology as they would apply to Star Wars and that therefore the United States was not bound to do so. This position, which had not yet been formally accepted within the administration, was unexpectedly made public by McFarlane on NBC's "Meet the Press" Oct. 6 and affirmed as administration policy in a White House background briefing two days later.
Retired ambassador Gerard C. Smith, who negotiated the ABM Treaty for the Nixon administration, charged that the new interpretation was erroneous and would make "a dead letter" of the treaty.
Friday's White House meeting took place as Shultz prepared to speak Monday to the San Francisco meeting of legislators from NATO countries, who had sharply questioned NATO Secretary General Lord Carrington and Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, director of the SDI program, about the ABM shift. Shultz was also preparing to fly from San Francisco to Brussels to see NATO foreign ministers, who were showing signs of dismay about the new ABM stance.
As a result of the White House meeting, Shultz was able to tell both gatherings that Reagan had decided to continue to conduct the SDI program "in accordance with a restrictive interpretation" of the ABM Treaty even though the administration believed the new interpretation advanced by the Pentagon was "fully justified."
In effect, Shultz said that Reagan agreed with the new legal interpretation, which would allow virtually unrestricted testing and development of Star Wars, but would continue to pursue the program under greater restrictions as a measure of voluntary self-restraint.
Shultz did not specify how long the self-restraint would continue, though he suggested it would not end soon. He told a Brussels press conference, for example, that "we have designed our research program to fall within the narrower definition of the ABM Treaty's provisions, and we intend to keep it that way."
Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard N. Perle, whose office originated the new legal interpretation of the treaty, indicated yesterday that Reagan's decision to abide by the previous restrictive interpretation was temporary.
Perle told reporters that "with respect to the future, it remains to be seen" whether the United States will continue to accept an interpretation of the treaty that rules out full-scale testing and development of space-based antimissile systems.
Asked if the Soviets would be "well within their legal rights" to proceed with research, testing and development of exotic ABMs now that Reagan has decided that restrictions on such activity have no legal standing in the ABM Treaty, Perle replied, "That's correct." When a reporter asked if this were a desirable position from the U.S. standpoint, Perle replied, "It's a realistic position."