The Reagan administration is divided over whether to use an existing Geneva-based, U.S.-Soviet commission established by the 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to negotiate solutions to alleged Soviet treaty violations, according to sources inside and outside the government.
The interagency battle has intensified on the eve of a new White House report for Congress on Soviet violations, and at a time when the Pentagon is having trouble agreeing on appropriate U.S. responses to the Soviet infractions.
On one side of the debate, according to government sources, is Gen. Richard H. Ellis, the crusty, retired former chief of the Strategic Air Command, who currently is U.S. representative to the U.S.-Soviet Standing Consultative Commission (SCC) in Geneva. Opposing Ellis is Assistant Defense Secretary Richard N. Perle, a tough bureaucratic infighter and the Pentagon's leader on arms control matters.
The SCC was set up in 1972 to discuss ABM, SALT I and, in 1979, SALT II treaty compliance issues and to consider amendments and further proposals on strategic arms. The Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations used it to solve questions of adherence to the treaty's terms. But under President Reagan, the SCC has served primarily as a forum to complain about Soviet actions, according to arms control officials.
Critics of the administration's arms control policies cite failure to use the SCC as a sign that Reagan's strategists are more interested in getting political mileage out of Soviet violations than in solving the disputes. The administration, however, contends that Moscow has been intractable in negotiating a solution and that "Soviet behavior is motivated by a desire to gain advantage and the SCC is powerless to affect it," according to a leaked Pentagon report last month.
Ellis wants negotiating instructions from Reagan in order to pursue Soviet violation issues when the SCC reconvenes next spring, according to government sources. When this battle began last summer, Ellis sought authority to modify the ABM treaty by preventing construction of new phased-array radars, such as the controversial Soviet installation in central Siberia. He also wanted to establish rules for dismantling strategic bombers and update the numbers of superpower bombers and missiles, sources said.
Perle blocked Ellis' effort and plans to oppose him again, sources said. Perle long has wanted to abolish the SCC and, in a recent Pentagon report to the president delivered on the eve of the Geneva summit, described the commission as "an Orwellian memory-hole into which our concerns have been dumped like yesterday's trash."
Infighting between the two men and their respective supporters has taken a personal turn.
One of Perle's aides recently called Ellis "naive" in dealing with the Soviets and said that his radar plan would interfere with U.S. attempts to get the Siberian facility dismantled. Perle reportedly sought last fall to have Ellis replaced, according to a source close to the Pentagon official.
A column Wednesday by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak described Ellis as having told a House Intelligence subcommittee that Soviet SALT compliance was "good," thus helping to "sabotage" Reagan's arms control policy. That perspective was described yesterday by an administration official close to Ellis as having come from the "Perle side" of the Pentagon.
Perle was out of the country yesterday and unavailable for comment. Ellis said he would not comment on the article or his activities.
The third annual presidential report on Soviet arms violations is expected to go to Capitol Hill within a week, a government source said yesterday. While disclosing no new important violations, it will feature a long introduction on what is described as the historic pattern of Soviet behavior in violating treaties, the source said.
Another source said that the report echoes conclusions in the summit-eve Pentagon report to Reagan that was leaked to The Washington Post and New York Times.
In a covering letter to that Pentagon report, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger had told Reagan that U.S. "failure over the years to respond promptly to Soviet violations can only encourage them to commit more -- and more significant -- violations."
The present budget crunch and the impact next year of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction bill have made congressional approval of the initial Pentagon plans for a response doubtful. That plan proposed more "penetration aids," to make nuclear warheads less vulnerable, and additional nuclear missiles or keeping older ballistic missile submarines in operation even when newly commissioned submarines put the United States over a limit specified in SALT II.