President Reagan personally reversed his national security adviser, Robert C. McFarlane, after McFarlane prematurely tried to redefine a key element of U.S. arms control policy, the White House acknowledged today.
But a spokesman insisted that Reagan believes McFarlane's position was "fully justified" and left open the possibility it could be adopted as U.S. policy sometime in the future.
The spokesman, Edward Djerejian, dismissed as "sheer fantasy" reports that Secretary of State George P. Shultz suggested that he might resign over the policy dispute. But a source familiar with Shultz's position said the secretary strongly objected to any reinterpretation of language in the 1972 anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty.
The Administration's reading of the ABM treaty language could have far-reaching effects on Reagan's "Star Wars" project.
In an attempt to give wide latitude to the research program, McFarlane said publicly that the treaty language would enable the Administration to develop and test components of an anti-missile shield if they use "exotic" technology that wasn't contemplated when the treaty was drawn 13 years ago.
Djerejian acknowledged that McFarlane's statement was made prematurely.
Construction Severely Limited
The ABM accord, signed in Moscow by then-President Richard M. Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, severely limits construction of anti-missile defenses on the theory that a nation facing devastating retaliation without a defense would be less inclined to launch a nuclear attack.
Reagan argues that development of an effective defense would render the world's nuclear arsenals obsolete.
Djerejian said Reagan decided at a meeting with his key arms control advisers last Friday not to accept the broader policy interpretation announced by McFarlane during an Oct. 6 television program, although he agreed that the Administration would be within its rights to do so.