During this week's superpower summit, President Reagan invoked the Russian proverb, ``Trust, but verify,'' often enough for it to become a running joke among Soviet and American officials. Yet the issue of verification will likely provoke some sharp words in Congress next year, when the Senate debates the historic arms control accord eliminating intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
Conservative opponents of the treaty signed this week by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev argue that it includes insufficient safeguards against Soviet cheating. Supporters, including Reagan administration officials, counter that the accord includes unprecedented provisions for treaty enforcement, including arrangements for officials from both countries to inspect each other's weapons facilities.
At a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday, Senate majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virgina said the controversy over the adequacy of verification provisions may pose the single greatest threat to the treaty's ratification.
``The most serious real challenge is verification,'' Senator Byrd said. He added that he strongly supports the treaty as he currently understands it and expects to see the Senate vote in April in favor of its ratification. Nevertheless, he added, ``If we analyze the treaty and find that there are loopholes, a very serious challenge could be mounted.''
In all probability, that challenge would come in the form of proposed amendments to the articles of ratification before the Senate. Scores of amendments are contemplated, some of which are innocuous, some of which, if passed, would almost certainly impel the Soviets to abandon the treaty.
A two-thirds Senate vote in favor of ratification is required for the treaty to be ratified, but an amendment requires only a majority of those present and voting to become part of the document.
A number of such proposed amendments - linking the treaty's implementation, for example, to a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan - are being crafted to tempt a large number of senators. ``It's conceivable that a reservation could be written that could, in this instance, be a killer amendment. We have to be very careful of that,'' Mr. Byrd said.
Neverthless, he asserted, a sufficient number of senators are aware of the danger that ``killer'' amendments pose to the agreement to prevent them from supporting such amendments unwittingly. Instead, he said, the Senate would probably support reservations that would not require new commitments by the Soviets.
Reservations dealing with verification may be a different matter. Some conservatives who otherwise support the treaty, such as former assistant defense secretary Richard Perle, believe that the verification provisions of the treaty fall short in some important ways. Mr. Perle, for instance, is concerned that the treaty provides for inspection of each countries' ``designated'' missile launch sites - sites where intermediate-range missiles have been deployed in the past - but not sites where missiles may be suspected of being deployed after the treaty goes into effect.
``We will have to study the treaty very, very carefully,'' Byrd said. ``Reading it on the surface is not enough.''