DURING the cold war, the term arms controller was pejorative throughout the United States national security bureaucracy. Controllers, Housed in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), were considered soft and suspect. Hence the agency's policy role was circumscribed, especially in conservative administrations. But liberals, too, faulted the agency - for its supposed timidity in confronting critics of arms control. No wonder Paul Warnke, Jimmy Carter's beleaguered ACDA director, characterized arms
control as "an unnatural act."
Still, prior to the Reagan years, ACDA constituted the largest, most capable body of arms-control expertise in government and, probably, the world. Its accomplishments were many.
Without the agency, for instance, there would probably be no Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the past 12 years have been unkind to ACDA. It remains an asset, but can no longer perform the policymaking or operational functions envisaged in its 1961 charter. ACDA has lost much of its analytical core. Excluding those detailed to ACDA from other agencies, there are only about 40 full time ACDA arms-control specialists actually on board.
My 1979 book on ACDA found it to be a valuable, if junior, policy actor. This judgment must now be qualified. Perhaps this is why President Clinton has yet to announce his nominee for ACDA director. And two of four recent reports recommend merging ACDA with the State Department. This would be a mistake. Neither the Carnegie Endowment report nor a State Department study ("State 2000") makes a convincing case for dissolving ACDA. The only thorough, balanced, analytical assessment of the agency was authored
by Mike Krepon, Amy Smithson, and Jim Schear of the Henry L. Stimson Center. They make well-reasoned arguments both for eliminating and for upgrading the agency. Wisely, they opt for the latter course.
There are three principal reasons for retaining and strengthening the quasi-independent ACDA:
* The State Department - especially the regional bureaus - gives primary attention to issues other than arms control. Little has changed since 1962 when Sen. Hubert Humphrey, often called the father of ACDA, found that, when left to the State Department, arms control "became the victim of `higher' departmental priorities." Maintaining cordial diplomatic relations with other nations has regularly taken precedence over arms control.
* ACDA's traditional strengths - expertise, institutional memory, internal advocacy for arms control - have been, and remain, in the area of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Proliferation leads today's security agenda. Neither the State Department nor the Department of Defense gives consistent high priority to curbing the dissemination of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The Commerce Department actively opposes many proliferation-related controls. The recent Chemical Weapons Conven tion might not have been concluded last year if not for ACDA's advocacy and support.
* Perhaps ACDA's least-appreciated feature has been its role in educating nearly two generations of arms-control professionals. Top State Department strategic weapons arms-control specialists, and hundreds of other analysts throughout government, received their "basic training" as ACDA officers. Most reputable university arms-control programs have former ACDA officers on their faculties. Without this wellspring of knowledge and experience America's intellectual preeminence in this vital field could dimin ish.
There may be other reasons for reinvigorating ACDA, such as its useful role in arms-control verification and research. But the case against merging with the State Department is decisive, and the status quo is unacceptable. ACDA must be upgraded and perhaps oriented toward proliferation issues. The Stimson Center cites 14 sensible ways this can be done. The Clinton administration should heed the center's advice.