WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration conceded Thursday that part of its legal justification for trying to expand its "Star Wars" missile defense program may have been faulty, but it insisted that other crucial evidence permits such an expansion under a broader interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union.
State Department legal adviser Abraham Sofaer, responding to strong criticism by Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), acknowledged Thursday that he had made an "incomplete review" of Senate ratification proceedings when he sought in 1985 to justify the broader interpretation. But the White House said that the secret negotiating record behind the pact supports such a redefinition.
Deep Cuts Sought
The building legal debate over what is allowed by the treaty underscores a political battle in which some congressional Democrats are seeking to slash "Star Wars" funding and to pressure President Reagan into bargaining with the Soviets for deep reductions in strategic offensive weapons.
Discussions have been under way on a proposed compromise that would allow substantial funding of anti-missile defense research in exchange for an Administration agreement to abandon a broader interpretation of the treaty that would permit expansion of the "Star Wars" program, known formally as the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asserted Wednesday that Sofaer had repeatedly misrepresented what occurred in the Senate proceedings 15 years ago. Nunn said that the record supported a narrow reading of the treaty that would prohibit either side from moving beyond research only on space-based missile defense systems.
At a meeting with Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Sofaer "explicitly and repeatedly disavowed" the section of his 1985 legal opinion that dealt with the Senate's ratification of the treaty, explaining that it was "prepared by young lawyers on his staff," Levin said. Sofaer told Levin that results of a "further review" will be ready next month.
Previously, the State Department had defended Sofaer's document as "thorough, balanced . . . objective . . . carefully reviewed."
But, despite his concession, Sofaer--as well as spokesmen at the White House and State Department--continued to defend a broader interpretation of the treaty, one that would permit testing and development of space defense components in the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Although the Administration contends that such a reading is justified, it has thus far adhered to the current, narrower interpretation of the treaty, which restricts development of anti-missile defenses.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater contended that the broad reading is "fully justified" by the text of the treaty and by the secret record of negotiations that led up to the treaty. Sofaer claimed in his legal brief that the Soviet negotiators had rejected U.S. efforts to bar development of the kind of space defense system now sought by Reagan.
Nunn, who is influential on arms control matters, assailed Sofaer on a second aspect of his legal brief Thursday, and in a final report today that will end his well-orchestrated three-day campaign, the senator will pass judgment on Sofaer's analysis of the negotiating record.
Considers Record Vague
The senator has hinted that he considers the negotiating record ambiguous and that, therefore, the narrow interpretation of the treaty presented during Senate ratification hearings 15 years ago should be upheld.
He has said that if the negotiating record is found to support a broad interpretation--as alleged by the Administration and some congressional conservatives--then Congress and the White House would be thrown into a "constitutional confrontation of profound dimensions."
In his report Thursday, Nunn charged that Sofaer had used "amazing legal gymnastics" in the part of his legal brief dealing with U.S. and Soviet practices after ratification of the treaty.
Nunn said that Sofaer had "not identified any official statements before October, 1985, in which the U.S. government expressly took the position that the treaty permitted testing and development" of space defense technology.
He also sharply criticized Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, saying, "The available record of both official and unofficial U.S. statements directly contradicts both Secretary Weinberger's assertion that this issue never came up prior to the initiation of SDI and Sofaer's claim that the U.S. position on the issue has not been consistent."