WASHINGTON — More than three years ago, Congress called on the Reagan Administration to establish "nuclear risk reduction centers" to help head off crises between the two superpowers. And now, these centers have become the chief instrument for managing step-by-step compliance with the new treaty banning medium-range missiles.
There is only one problem: Thanks to seemingly endless bureaucratic and diplomatic wrangling, the centers do not actually exist.
As originally envisioned, they were to be an extension of the "hot line" system linking crisis centers in the White House and Kremlin. Situated in Washington and Moscow, staffed by specialists from both countries, the centers were to act as clearing houses for information about missile launchings, ship movements and other matters that might raise tensions or precipitate a crisis.
In Washington, the State Department was initially cool to the idea. The Pentagon was downright hostile, fearing the centers would become new platforms for Soviet espionage. Bureaucrats haggled for months over which agency--State, Defense or the National Security Council--would house the center here, according to the Administration sources.
In Moscow, Kremlin officials were similarly unenthusiastic, fearing the Moscow center would pry state secrets from the Soviets, according to U.S. officials engaged in the negotiations.
As a result, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze did not formally sign an agreement establishing the centers until last September. And today, no centers have actually been set up.
The two sides still have not agreed on such things as the technical characteristics of the centers' communications links. Compatible computers and high-speed facsimile machines with satellite transmissions, for example, will be required to store and transmit large quantities of information on each sides' plan to remove and destroy its medium-range missiles.
But Administration officials say the chilly atmosphere that slowed progress on the centers has warmed in recent months, and their role in the missile treaty has given negotiations major impetus. Late last month, for instance, as it became clear the centers would play a key part in the medium-range missile treaty, agreement was finally reached here that the State Department would be the host agency in this country.
And as early as February, American technical experts are to fly to Moscow to work out agreements on the communication equipment that will link the two sides.
"This began to come to fruition only when it became clear the President and the Soviets were going to come off their hard rhetoric and start negotiating," said Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), one of the authors of Congress' risk reduction center initiative. Warner said he and the co-author of the bill, Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), hope that the risk reduction centers will expand their role beyond serving as an information clearinghouse for the medium-range missile treaty.
Monitoring the Heartbeat
"At the moment the Senate ratifies this treaty, life goes into those centers," Col. Gen. Nikolai F. Chervov, one of the Soviet Defense Ministry's top arms control experts, told Warner over lunch at the State Department on Wednesday. "They will be monitoring the heartbeat of this treaty."
But the idea of staffing each center with mixed crews made up of nationals from both countries has gone by the boards. The center in Washington is to be staffed by American diplomatic and military personnel, while Moscow will man its center with Soviet personnel.
Each side, however, will allow access to its risk reduction center to designated liaison officers from the other's embassy. While the Defense Department houses communications links established under earlier agreements, Administration officials said it resisted any move to house the American Risk Reduction Center in the Pentagon because of the access it would have to give Soviet officials.
Moscow has not yet notified Washington of any further details of the Soviet center, including its proposed site, said U.S. officials.