President Reagan's senior arms-control advisers met yesterday and remained divided over what new elements to include in their "positive" response to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's latest comprehensive arms proposal, according to informed sources.
The purpose of yesterday's morning session at the State Department was to hear reports from Ambassadors Paul H. Nitze and Edward L. Rowny on their consultations with West European and Asian allies on possible U.S. responses to Moscow.
The ensuing discussion turned into what one participant called a "brainstorming session." Some officials said later that an agreement on recommendations to the president was reached, but others said that Defense Department officials refused to drop their opposition to some proposed positions.
A National Security Council meeting on a response to Gorbachev is expected next week, sources said, after which Reagan will contact the Soviet leader and instructions will be sent to U.S. negotiators at the Geneva arms talks.
Officials at the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) want the United States to propose elimination of U.S. Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles and Soviet SS20 and SS4 intermediate-range missiles in Europe, according to senior administration officials.
This approach is similar to what Gorbachev offered last month, but under the U.S. approach a "very low number" of Soviet SS20s would be permitted in Asia, with an equal number of U.S. missiles permitted in the United States. Gorbachev made no mention of SS20s in Asia.
The U.S. response also would emphasize verification of weapons, including possible on-site inspection.
From the start, Pentagon officials have balked at sending any positive response to Gorbachev's proposals, arguing that they are linked to unacceptable provisions and thus offered only for their propaganda value.
The Soviet leader's Jan. 16 statement called for both superpowers to reduce the number of missiles in Europe to zero, linking the reduction to a freeze of British and French nuclear systems and a U.S. pledge not to transfer nuclear systems to European allies.
Defense Department officials have argued that the Soviets knew that linking the reduction to a British-French freeze would be unacceptable to Washington and the Western Europeans, and that they made the offer to create tension between the allies and for propaganda purposes.
State Department officials counter that the Soviets eventually will drop the idea of a British-French freeze.
Reagan's advisers originally presented their conflicting positions at a Feb. 3 White House meeting. The Nitze-Rowny consultations were then agreed to, with the idea that the views of allied leaders would help the president in his decision-making.
The West Europeans generally favor the idea of sharply reducing the number of Soviet and U.S. missiles in Europe. However, the British reportedly want the United States to turn down the idea of linking missile reductions to a freeze, which would prevent a plan by the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to replace an aging Polaris sub-launched ballistic missile system with a new, longer-range Trident missile.
The Chinese and the Japanese, sources said, are unhappy that Soviet missiles in Europe would be reduced to zero, under the U.S. and Soviet plans, while Moscow would be allowed to retain half of its missiles now in the East. To satisfy those concerns, sources said, State Department officials have suggested the language on "very low numbers," without a reference to any proportion of current deployments.