In a briefing for reporters yesterday, senior State Department and Pentagon officials reiterated the United States position that there was no justification for the slaying in East Germany last Sunday of US Army Maj. Arthur D. Nicholson Jr., adding that the ``use of deadly force is totally out of keeping'' with rules established in 1947 providing for the exchange of military observers across the inter-German border. On Monday the Soviets expressed ``regret over the death of the officer'' but added that the ``entire responsibility for it rests fully on the American side.'' According to the Soviet account, Major Nicholson violated the 1947 agreement by penetrating a restricted area that was clearly marked with warning signs. According to Soviet sources, Nicholson ignored the warning shots of a Soviet sentry and was killed trying to escape.
In a statement to reporters on Monday, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt characterized the Soviet account as ``totally unjustified'' and as ``wrong, dead wrong.'' Wednesday, US officials insisted that Nicholson's efforts to photograph a building housing Soviet military equipment were ``normal'' and ``entirely consistent'' with the ground rules of the agreement. Although the area where Nicholson was shot had been temporarily restricted by the Soviets, the restrictions were lifted on March 20, officials said.
Under the 1947 agreement, liaison missions from the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France have been given outpost and traveling rights in what were then each other's postwar zones of occupation. Since the division of Germany in 1949, these privileges have continued. Under the terms of the arrangement -- which, in effect, permits spying -- the US maintains a 14-person mission in Potsdam, East Germany. Members are unarmed, except for the tools of the trade: binoculars, infrared cameras, and highly sensitive listening devices. The purpose of the missions is to monitor military installations and troop movements along the heavily fortified main axis of the cold war.
This is not the first time incidents have occurred. The period since 1947 has been punctuated by frequent detentions, warning shots, and at least one reported beating of American servicemen by Soviet soldiers, in 1982. There have also been reports of deliberate rammings to disable the vehicles used by liaison officers. Last year, in a widely reported incident, three French soldiers were involved in a suspicious head-on collision in East Germany while attempting to observe Warsaw Pact troop maneuvers. One French soldier was killed, another was seriously injured.
But last weekend's fatal shooting was the first such incident in the 38-year history of the agreement. It has left US and private observers confused about Soviet motives.
According to one West European diplomat, Major Nicholson was at least 300 meters outside the restricted area, consistent with ground rules that have governed the operation of liaison teams since the agreement began. While US officials concede that taking photos -- even from outside restricted areas -- has always posed risks of detention, they say the Soviet response Sunday was an unprecedented and unwarranted tragedy. ``Our view is that you take the camera away and you send them home; you don't shoot unarmed soldiers,'' said a senior Pentagon official on Tuesday.
The most plausible explanation for the incident is that it was an isolated event -- ``an out-of-the-blue kind of thing,'' as one Pentagon official described it -- that was not part of any calculated plan on the part of the Soviets.
Whatever the explanation, officials here are treating the event as a serious matter, without precedent even during periods of more strained US-Soviet relations. Officials also denounced as ``incomprehensible'' and ``particularly inhumane'' the fact that Nicholson was not allowed to receive medical attention for nearly an hour after the shooting.
So far, US officials have declined to speculate what measures the US will take to vent its dissatisfaction with the Soviets. As a minimum, the US is expected to pursue what Pentagon briefers yesterday called ``high-level military-to-military discussions'' to ensure that there will be no repetition of last weekend's shooting. The 1947 agreement, like a similar ``Incidents at Sea'' agreement signed in 1972, has provisions for consultative arrangements to help minimize the political effects of such incidents.
But observers here say that all parties have a vested interest in minimizing the political fallout in order to preserve the mutually beneficial, if unusual, 1947 agreement. Observers here also say the US will be cautious about allowing the incident to cloud longer-term US-Soviet relations. With arms talks just under way in Geneva and with the possibility now emerging of the first superpower summit since 1979, observers believe the administration will exercise a measure of restraint in its response to the Nicholson affair. In a statement on Monday, President Reagan said the incident ``would make me more anxious'' to go to a summit with Gorbachev.