WASHINGTON — In a scathing report, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) dealt a sharp blow Wednesday to the Reagan Administration's contention that testing and development of a space-based missile defense system is permitted under the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union.
Nunn, an influential expert on defense issues, asserted that State Department legal adviser Abraham Sofaer, in outlining a broader interpretation of the treaty two years ago that would allow a space defense system, repeatedly misrepresented what officials in the Richard M. Nixon Administration and senators had said in ratification proceedings more than a decade ago.
Nunn had signaled last month that he thought that redefining the treaty would cause serious problems. In a letter to President Reagan, he warned that an abrupt change in the U.S. definition of the ABM treaty, which was ratified by the Senate in 1972, "would provoke a constitutional confrontation of profound dimensions" between Congress and the White House.
Reagan has agreed to postpone a decision on whether to adopt a more permissive interpretation until State Department officials have an opportunity to complete another study this spring on the legal issues involved in altering the current, official U.S. view of the treaty.
In his report, Nunn disputed Sofaer's claim that the Senate record of debate during ratification supported an Administration interpretation that would permit development of Reagan's "Star Wars" program. Nunn said the record showed "beyond a reasonable doubt" that the Senate understood that it was approving a ban on such development.
Accusations by Nunn
Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, charged that Sofaer, a former federal judge, omitted key testimony, drew false inferences and flatly contradicted the record in a 1985 legal opinion interpreting the treaty. Sofaer, whose opinion was prepared at the request of "Star Wars" advocates in the Administration who wanted to accelerate the program, could not be reached for comment.
The treaty was designed to forbid national anti-missile networks, allowing only 100 ABM missiles on each side and restricting any further conventional, non-nuclear defenses to the area of research.
Nunn said that he had "not identified a single statement in the record of the ratification proceedings which explicitly supports" the Administration's case for being able to legally conduct more than just research on the "Star Wars" plan, formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative.
On the other hand, he added, "the record contains a series of authoritative statements explicitly supporting the traditional view that the treaty prohibits testing and development of mobile/space-based exotics"--that is, lasers and other advanced technology. He rejected the Administration's argument that the treaty's wording on this point is ambiguous.
Despite the attack, Nunn emphasized that there still are two other possible grounds for supporting a broader interpretation of the treaty by the Administration--namely, the record of negotiations between the Americans and Soviets and the practices that the two countries have followed in carrying out their obligations under the pact.
Nunn said he will present his findings on those issues today and Friday but hinted that he does not believe they will support a broader interpretation.
Sofaer, Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and others have charged that the top-secret negotiating record shows that the Soviets never agreed to U.S. proposals for banning testing and development of space-based weapons.
Wilson, who said he spent six hours reading the record, said in a speech Wednesday: "The narrow interpretation is what the U.S. negotiators tried to get but failed to get from the Soviets--but then they represented to the Senate and the Nixon Administration that they had gotten it when they presented their explanation of the treaty during ratification hearings."
If that is true, Nunn said at joint hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees Wednesday, "there would be a first-class royal mess. . . . There would be one contract between the two superpowers and another contract ratified by the Senate."
In such a case, if the President did not choose to honor the treaty as ratified, "the Senate would have to develop an appropriate response or risk having its role in the treaty-making process become meaningless," Nunn said.
Nunn, whose position on the merits of the Strategic Defense Initiative is ambiguous, said there may be a need for development if arms control efforts or programs to upgrade offensive missiles "fail to restore stability to the strategic balances in the future."
Withdrawal or Amending
He said there are ways to pursue the "Star Wars" system even if it were deemed to be prohibited by the ABM treaty. The United States could withdraw from the treaty or seek to amend it, he said, though he was not proposing such steps "at this time."