YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Arms Proliferation Grows, But Where Are Controls? : Disarmament: Even in a post-Cold War world, the arms-control agency still has a big job to do. The new President should retool it.

January 03, 1993|Thomas A. Halsted | Thomas A. Halsted served as director of public affairs for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1977 to 1981

MANCHESTER, MASS. — Notably absent from President-elect Bill Clinton's now-complete roster of Cabinet and senior national-security appointees is the director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Two major government reorganization studies have recently called for the agency's abolition.

Both the State Department and a private study commission recommended that the agency be dismantled and its functions absorbed by the State Department. There has been little or no public response, either in defense of the recommendations or of ACDA.

But Clinton should resist this advice. ACDA needs to be reorganized, not abolished. It has an important new job to do.

The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was created in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, in the belief that a strong, central coordinating agency, independent of the State and Defense Departments, was needed to deal with the high-priority arms-control and disarmament challenges the country was facing at the height of the Cold War. Its legislative mandate was to conduct research in support of policy formulation; to plan for and conduct international negotiations; to disseminate and coordinate public information, and to develop effective inspection and control mechanisms.

Congress passed the enabling legislation only after long debates about the perceived risks of allowing a government agency to think about disarmament. Putting the D-word in the agency's title was daring, and the new agency's officials soon found it more comfortable to refer to their organization as "the arms-control agency," in hopes of neutralizing ideological opposition. The word "peace" was also in the title in early versions of the legislation, but was soon dropped. One skeptical congressmen acknowledged that he only favored creating the agency so "all the nuts could be kept in one place."

ACDA's institutional weaknesses were apparent early on. The agency's director was given nominal independence and a rank equivalent to that of an undersecretary of state--but little to work with. By government standards, the staff was tiny (fewer than 200) and the budget minuscule (less than $10 million). Some congressional supporters were fond of pointing out that the Pentagon annually received more than five times that amount for marching bands.

Bureaucratic turf wars were a constant fact of life. ACDA's director needed the support of powerful sponsors, often hard to find. Even with presidential backing, ACDA initiatives were frequently torpedoed by Cabinet officers with other agendas. Agreements that had been negotiated by ACDA almost to completion were sometimes snatched away at the endgame by more powerful players.

In 1972, for example, National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger took over the SALT I negotiations at the 11th hour from ACDA Director Gerard C. Smith, resulting in a treaty with serious definitional flaws that would come to haunt U.S. planners. Kissinger also overruled the ACDA and the unanimous recommendation of its General Advisory Committee to insist that MIRVs (multiple-warhead missiles) be exempted from SALT controls, an act he later acknowledged was a mistake. Kissinger's successor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, ever intent on poking a thumb in Moscow's eye, caused similar problems for Paul C. Warnke, Jimmy Carter's SALT negotiator and ACDA director.

In addition, the agency was the periodic victim of purges--congressional hawks viewed it with disfavor because of its presumed zealous pursuit of arms agreements. The early Reagan years saw almost no interest in arms control--one of his Administration's first actions was to formally disavow any interest in a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a measure that had been promoted by every President since Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Over the succeeding years the agency was further dismantled, its negotiating function taken away, its research capability gutted and a series of bland caretakers placed in charge of its dwindling responsibilities. Now, the agency has few supporters left among the public or on Capitol Hill.

Throughout its existence, ACDA has concentrated on using arms-control measures to reduce the risk of conflict with the now-defunct Soviet Union. Disarmament was not the objective; stabilizing the competition was. Arms control was not just the more acceptable term--it was the primary focus.

Keeping a bad situation from getting worse by setting rules for continuing the arms race may have been credible while the Cold War was on. But now it's a new world, with a different agenda.

Before abolishing the ACDA, Clinton should look at the advantages of retaining a separate but streamlined agency, charged with developing and testing the new approaches that will be needed to deal with the daunting array of post-Cold War arms problems:

--A potential surge in nuclear proliferation, with the new problem of smuggled nuclear material from the former Soviet Union to would-be proliferaters, even to non-governmental terrorist groups.

Los Angeles Times Articles