The Cabinet members cheering Ronald Reagan's triumphant return to Washington from Geneva last week provided the appearance of an Administration united behind his summit success. Such homecoming harmony, however, was preceded by internal rivalries that lasted right up to the President's departure for his first meeting with a Soviet leader and threatened to undermine his negotiating credibility. Reagan was furious when he learned that a letter from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, urging him to hang tough on arms control, had been leaked to the New York Times and the Washington Post. The President's mood did not improve after an unidentified White House official accommodated newsmen by replying to a question as to whether the leak was an attempt to sabotage the U.S. bargaining stance: "Sure it was."
The letter was the covering note attached to a Pentagon study that Reagan had requested on alleged Soviet violations of past arms agreements. In a somewhat patronizing tone, Weinberger cautioned his Commander in Chief against making any concessions to Mikhail Gorbachev that would "limit severely your options for responding." U.S. commitment to strict compliance with the antiballistic missile treaty of 1972, warned Weinberger, could eventually hamper progress on the President's vaunted Strategic Defense Initiative. That militant position was hardly a new one for Weinberger, but the timing of his latest warning gave the Soviets an opening to charge that the U.S. plans to abrogate the only fully ratified arms treaty between the superpowers. Sure enough, the Soviets' Georgi Arbatov promptly stated that the letter proved Reagan was "not serious" about the summit. The flap soon subsided, however, and its eventual role at the summit was minimal.
Who leaked the letter? Early speculation centered on Richard Perle, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy and the Administration's most ardent critic of arms control. Perle flatly denied that he was the source of the leak. Defense Department officials pointed out that the leaked letter bore Weinberger's nickname signature "Cap," while the copies distributed to Perle and others in the Pentagon were unsigned: the implication was that it was leaked after receipt elsewhere in the Government. A fine point, perhaps, but by week's end Washington insiders were convinced that other players had more motive for mischief. Said Maine's Republican Senator William Cohen: "You can just as easily assume it was the liberals trying to embarrass the President into a negotiating posture as you can believe it was conservatives trying to forestall concessions."
While the leak was tame by Washington standards, failure to classify the letter made it all the easier for editors of the two papers to justify its publication. Indeed, some observers speculated that Weinberger himself wanted his missive made public, particularly since so many copies were dispatched around the Government. Said Thomas Longstreth, associate director of the privately funded Arms Control Association: "By sending it unclassified, Weinberger intended it to be leaked." The Secretary denies any such purpose. "I can't recall that I've ever classified a letter I've given the President," he told TIME last week. "I can only think that somebody felt this would be an additional way of discrediting me."