Maj. Gen. William Burns, the new director of the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), does not have the visibility - or political clout - of his predecessor, Kenneth Adelman. But he has brought a quiet professionalism to the agency and is making a contribution to the administration's efforts to negotiate a strategic nuclear arms reduction treaty (START).
After almost three months in office, General Burns is viewed as playing a larger role in providing technical support for the START and space and defense negotiations and less of a role as an independent player in the bureaucratic struggle for the President's heart and soul.
``Burns has enough technical expertise to be helpful so ACDA under him plays a greater role,'' says Dimitri Simes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Burns, a soft-spoken man with a quiet, direct manner, says he wants the agency to be more involved in the process of developing disarmament positions.
``ACDA should originate ideas not just react,'' he says. It should ``not just be the conduit of instructions and ideas developed by others. The ACDA director has been in the past [and] will be in the future a direct participant in the negotiating process.''
And at present? ``I was an active participant in the negotiating process at the [Moscow] summit,'' replies the former general, who retired from the military to accept the post of director.
Burns comes to his job with considerable experience, having held a number of command and staff jobs in the US Army. Knowledgeable about arms control, he represented the Joint Chiefs of Staff on the US delegation to the INF (intermediate-range nuclear arms treaty) negotiations from their inception in 1981. Before his ACDA appointment he was principal deputy assistant secretary of state in the State Department's bureau of political and military affairs.
Since its founding in 1961, ACDA has had an ambivalent history. Whenever its director led the arms control negotiations - as Gerard Smith did on SALT I and Paul Warnke did on SALT II - the agency tended to be more powerful. But there have been periods when it has seemed almost a stepchild, giving way to the larger and more established arms control bureaucracies at the State and Defense Departments.
Mr. Adelman managed to increase the agency's personnel and budget. A genial, articulate former diplomat and teacher, he made himself widely known, working lawmakers on Capitol Hill and meeting frequently with the news media. A strong conservative, he became an independent player in the bureaucracy with an independent constituency - the conservative right that is skeptical of the strategic arms reduction negotiations and fiercely supports President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.
By comparison, General Burns has adopted a low profile. But ironically, by giving up such a publicly assertive role, ACDA may acquire more influence in the experts' talks on nitty-gritty START issues. Some think Burns can serve as a potential bridge between the negotiators and the armed services, having had close ties with the joint chiefs and being a former military officer himself.
``He's still feeling his way in ACDA, and moving carefully,'' says a State Department official. ``He's not going in with his guns blazing, trumpeting his views like Adelman. But he's well thought of and regarded as extremely competent. ... He's playing a key role in the [negotiating] process and he may become more forceful as the critical choices have to be made.''
The environment in which ACDA now operates has vastly changed. The bitter squabbling between the State and Defense Departments that marked previous years of the Reagan administration has subsided, putting ACDA in a much less exposed position.
``Now there's a triumvirate working together as a team in a way that has not been the case under previous national security advisers,'' says Jack Mendelsohn, deputy director of the Arms Control Association. The ``triumvirate'' is Secretary of State George Shultz, Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci, and national security adviser Colin Powell.
``Now, if anything, the organization that has to be dealt with most seriously is the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff], which has become much more circumspect on arms control,'' comments Mr. Mendelsohn.
While Burns is not an administration insider like Mr. Shultz or Mr. Carlucci - or presidential arms adviser Paul Nitze - he has enough technical expertise to be regarded as helpful on the nuts and bolts. The director notes that because so many arms control forums exist today, the President and secretary of state have more arms advisers and the ACDA director does not play the same personal role he once did.
But everyone has a ``niche,'' Burns says, and he is participating in the START process. ``I'm quiet satisfied that the White House pays careful attention to my ideas,'' he says. ``Part of my advantage is that I've been in the business longer than most people....''
Burns describes the arms talks at the Moscow summit as ``intensive and extensive'' and covering the range of issues. He thinks it is possible to complete a START agreement in the Reagan administration but is doubtful that will happen.
``We're now in the process of preparing to completely round out our position - putting all the elements into treaty language,'' he says. ``So there will be no technical reasons why we cannot reach a START agreement quickly.'' Following the progress made in Moscow on mobile-missile verification and air-launched cruise missiles, Burns says, there are not too many issues outstanding.
But differences of approach have to be reconciled, he adds. ``If the Soviets were to basically accept our approach, we could reach agreement by the end of the year. It's unlikely they will do that. Therefore I'm not particularly optimistic that we will have ... a signed START treaty by January.''
``But,'' Burns adds, ``I think we have a treaty where the issues are sufficiently identified and isolated that it shouldn't take too many more months beyond that to reach an agreement.''
Efforts to label Burns ideologically leave him uneasy. The most damning comment he has received so far, he says, is being called a ``moderate'' in the Soviet Communist Party newspaper Pravda. ``I may be moderate on a lot of things,'' he muses, ``but in the interests of national security issues I'm not a moderate at all.'' Yes, he says, in the security field he would count himself a conservative.