Much of my early career at the State Department was spent dealing with Richard Perle’s office at the Pentagon on nonproliferation and technology transfer issues. Perle was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs under President Reagan.
Perle’s political career started with a job as a staffer for Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington. Perle was one of several Jewish staffers for Jackson who went on to have long, influential careers in Washington, including Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Abrams, William Kristol, and perhaps others. Their most notable accomplishment was their work on the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which eventually enabled hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel and the United States.
He is most famous as the reputed leader of the advisers who persuaded President Reagan not to agree at the summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate all nuclear weapons in the US and the Soviet Union. However, some claim that Perle’s role is an urban myth, and that Reagan would not have agreed in any case.
The two issues on which I clashed most frequently with Perle and his staff were missile proliferation and the COCOM regime which controlled exports to the Soviet Union. Perle was a hawk on both of these issues; he wanted an agreement that allowed zero missile proliferation, and wanted the allies to approve zero high tech exports to the Soviet Union. These issues came together because they both involved very specific lists of hardware and technology that could not be exported.
My connection to the issues was supplying intelligence on potentially damaging high tech exports by other countries and by American firms involved in illegal transactions. My first introduction to Perle was when he tried to end the US participation in IIASA. IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis) still exists, but was much more controversial in the 1970s because it served as a meeting place between Soviet and American scientists in Austria. Perle was concerned that technology was leaking to the Soviets. I first heard of it because the Secretary of State’s science adviser came down from the seventh floor to ask me to help him research IIASA and hopefully defend continued American participation in it. Since IIASA still exists, Perle lost, but I presume he restricted US participation while he was focused on it.
COCOM stood for Coordinating Committee, a group of export control experts who met periodically in Paris to coordinate guidelines for exports to the Soviet Union. For me, the main intelligence focus was on whether a member was exporting something on the controlled list. Perle would have sold nothing to the Soviets, but American businesses were interested in selling, as were companies in other countries that were members of the committee. There were a lot o gray areas about whether something was covered or not, and how restrictive should the controls be. Should they cover all computers, even small, personal ones, or only big, powerful ones? There was a lot of argument about sophisticated, numerically controlled machine tools. What tolerances should be allowed?
My main interaction with Perle’s office was regarding missile proliferation. President Jimmy Carter’s adminsitration had been working on a treaty that would apply to missiles the same kind of limits that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) applied nuclear weapons. When Carter was defeated, the Reagan administration picked up the idea and pursued it. A big problem was that the NPT was in deep disfavor among the nations that we most wanted to join it, potential proliferators like India, Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, North Korea, Israel. They saw the NPT as highly discriminatory, allowing nations that already had nuclear weapons to keep them, while preventing non-nuclear states from getting them. This perception of unfair treatment of the haves versus the have-nots carried over into the issue of missile proliferation. Other friendly, developed countries like the G-7 were reluctant to try to push a new, similar treaty down the throats of the developing countries. Gradually the idea of an arms control treaty evolved into a suppliers’ agreement not to sell missile hardware and technology to problem countries. Perle and his office wanted the absolute maximum controls, while American businesses and other countries wanted to be about to sell items that were less sensitive. Arguments over lists went on endlessly.
The head of the COCOM office in the State Department was Bill Root, who had been doing export control for years. Before Richard Perle arrived on the scene, his office was probably somewhat of a backwater, routinely working with the military, American businesses and other interested parties on what should be controlled. When Perle arrived, his office was suddenly front and center. Perle’s intransigence led to many disputes with our allies in Paris, who wanted a less restrictive regime.
Because I was working on developing lists of controlled items for the missile proliferation agreement, I sometimes worked with Bill Root and his office because they had similar lists for COCOM. The specifications in the COCOM list were a good model for the missile list, so that they would be understandable by businesses who wanted to know what they could sell. One day while Bill Root was helping me with the lists, he got an urgent call. It turned out to be Richard Perle. I left so that he could take the call. When I came back later that afternoon, his office told me that he had retired from the State Department and left.