Beyond official nuclear disarmament negotiations. US, Soviet lawyers try to tackle sticky verification issues in private forum

United States lawyers and their Soviet counterparts who met quietly in five cities last week say they may be the advance scouts in the nuclear disarmament wilderness, roaming beyond where official negotiators may tread. Soviet-relations experts in the US government urge them to watch where and how they step.

This is the sixth time the private, nonprofit Lawyers Alliance for the Nuclear Arms Control (LANAC) has met with the Association of Soviet Lawyers, a quasi-official nonmembership group that is the Soviet link to private law organizations. It was the third such meeting held in this country; the others took place in the USSR.

``What good can nongovernment officials do?'' asks Harvard law professor Roger Fisher, co-chairman of the kickoff session in Boston. He answers his own question: They can brainstorm, communicate, probe. Each party knows the other's official position, but neither is bound by it, he says.

American lawyers are trained to solve problems, says Professor Fisher. Why not apply those skills to arms issues?

The highest-ranking Soviet to attend the Boston session was Ambassador L.A. Masterkov, the chief of the strategic arms reduction treaty (START) talks in Geneva. He was very interested in the ``new approaches to the same problems'' that he heard, he said.

``We were not in a decisionmaking `mode,''' said Fisher of the Boston meeting, which was closed to the public and press. (Other meetings were in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Philadelphia. Only the Philadelphia meeting was open to the public.) The task in Boston was to come up with a ``menu'' of arms topics on which nonprofessionals might usefully work.

For example: What kind of legal system would you need to observe compliance when neither the US nor the Soviet Union has enough warheads for a first strike? How might you monitor a nation's chemical industry to ensure that it isn't producing chemical weapons?

LANAC has made ``a major contribution on arms control - there's no doubt in my mind,'' says Alan Sherr, who helped found the Boston-based association in 1980. He says the group helped make it clear to the Soviets that a controversial radar site was of sincere concern to US negotiators, and not simply a Soviet-bashing ploy of America's political right.

Fisher says the group has contributed to a new spirit in US-USSR relations, a feeling that deep differences don't rule out ``dealing with each other.''

Officials at the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency were cautious in their support of groups like LANAC.

In recent years, the Soviets have switched tactics in their attempts to influence world opinion, says a State Department analyst. Instead of backing international ``front'' organizations, the Soviets have joined in more personal, direct contacts with professional groups of journalists, clergy, lawyers, physicians. This grows out of an awareness ``that the US government is subject to, and responds to US citizen pressure,'' he says.

``I think that's why [the Soviets] meet with them,'' the analyst concludes.

The East-West exchanges are valuable, says a staff lawyer with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the Americans who participate are certainly not ``dupes.'' But they should be aware that ``in my view - at least up until now - it hasn't been a level playing field.'' Those who join the Association of Soviet Lawyers are ``more subject to government influence,'' he says.

Mr. Sherr calls such thinking ``anachronistic.'' LANAC was alert to the possibility that their contact might be used for propaganda purposes, he says, hence the closed meetings. He observes that recent remarks by Soviets have spanned a wider spectrum and have not been ``so uniformly self-serving as had been the case in the past.''

``Who's taking advantage of whom?'' he asks, noting the presence of the Soviets' chief START negotiator. ``That's kind of a risky thing to do,'' he says.

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