This is the season for bad news about the Soviet Union. When an arms treaty goes before the Senate for ratification, opponents try to draw the public's attention to Soviet behavior that raises doubts about the Soviets' trustworthiness as treaty partners.
As the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces nears completion, the number of leaks and disclosures of controversial Soviet behavior has already increased. In September an intelligence leak revealed that Soviet tests of submarine-launched missiles were overflying Hawaii. In October Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) leaked intelligence reports about two 15-year-old Soviet installations, contending that they violate the anti-ballistic-missile treaty. Then three computer scientists were arrested in California and charged with attempting to sell software for the Strategic Defense Initiative to the Soviets.
It may seem ridiculous to think that such minor issues could affect the ratification of a treaty as important as the arms accord. But we can't forget that the last arms-control treaty to go before the Senate was killed by a political storm touched off by just such a leak.
Linkage to what should have been a minor issue in U.S.-Soviet relations defeated the SALT II treaty in 1979. That spring, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national-security adviser, ordered an intelligence review of Soviet-Cuban military cooperation throughout the world. The secret survey turned up a 2,500-man Soviet troop unit in Cuba, which was identified in an intelligence report as a "combat brigade."
The report was leaked to Sen. Richard Stone of Florida, a SALT II opponent. Stone confronted Administration witnesses at the Foreign Relations Committee hearings on the treaty in July, charging that the Soviets had introduced a combat brigade into Cuba. Fearful that the rumors would hurt SALT II, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and CIA Director Stansfield Turner denied that there was any increase in Soviet military forces in Cuba. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Frank Church endorsed their denials.
Someone then leaked the intelligence report to the press. Journalists telephoned Church at his home in Idaho. Concerned about appearing "soft" toward the Soviet Union during a difficult fight for reelection, the senator tried to look tough. He told the press that the ratification of SALT II could not proceed while the Soviet brigade remained in Cuba.
That fall, the Foreign Relations Committee interrupted its ratification hearings on SALT II for a month to make way for hearings on the combat brigade. The Administration demanded that the Soviets withdraw the brigade. The Soviets flatly refused, arguing that the unit was training Cuban troops, which was not prohibited by any agreement with the United States.
In the end a thorough intelligence review led the Carter Administration to conclude that the Soviet unit had been in Cuba for 17 years--since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Analysts decided that it probably was training the Cuban army to use Soviet weapons.
After the hearings on the brigade, Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd searched for space on the Senate calendar to reschedule the debate on SALT II. He was still trying to arrange the ratification debate when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December. After the Afghan invasion, President Carter could not, politically, ask for ratification of the treaty.
While a treaty is under consideration, the public and members of Congress are especially sensitive to the question of how the agreement will affect the relative strength of the United States and the Soviet Union, and they are likely to overreact to bad news about Soviet behavior. As demonstrated in 1979, a small incident can turn the tide of opinion in this country against an important treaty and cause its defeat.
The 1979 brigade incident is a cautionary tale as the Senate moves toward the consideration of the INF treaty. It will not be surprising if more charges about Soviet behavior surface in the coming months. Obviously, some Soviet actions might cast doubt on the wisdom of bringing the treaty into force.
But it is important to maintain a sense of balance about the importance of these other issues compared to the pending arms-control treaty. Soviet activities that might seem to cast doubt on the treaty should be examined with several questions in mind: Is the Soviet behavior new, or has it been tolerated by the United States for years? Is it really a threat to U.S. security? Realistically, can the United States do anything to immediately change Soviet behavior? And is confronting the Soviets about minor aspects of their foreign behavior worth the risk of losing a treaty as important for U.S. security as the prospective INF agreement?