132. Memorandum From Jack Matlock of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (McFarlane)1


  • Soviet Efforts to Establish Contacts

I have been struck by the accumulating evidence that the Soviets may be attempting to establish an unofficial, confidential means of communicating with the White House. In recent weeks, several apparent attempts to send “messages” indirectly have occurred, and although all are possibly explicable in other ways (including attempts to sow deceptive information), I believe we should view them as possible parts of a pattern. The approaches known to me include:

—[1 line not declassified] (TAB A)2

—The two approaches last week by Soviet and Hungarian intelligence officers to a private American citizen (reports at TAB B).3

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—The contact I had earlier this month with Pravda correspondent Sergei Vishnevsky (memcon supplied earlier).4

—An invitation to me for lunch by Soviet Minister-Counselor Isakov over two weeks ago (I told him I was too busy at the time, but would call if I could find time).

—The renewal of a long-standing invitation to Ty Cobb to visit Moscow as the guest of the USA Institute (repeated to an American visitor to Moscow following the KAL shoot-down).

—Repeated comments by Soviet officials to recent American visitors (e.g. Suzanne Massie)5 regarding the need for a better dialogue.

Dobrynin’s question to Shultz last Friday as to what the President meant when he proposed “confidential contacts” in his letter.6

Only the first of these probes included a specific appeal for an unofficial channel, but all would be typical of Soviet behavior if they were groping for one. [1½ lines not declassified], but the report indicates that the request was for a channel “between our two sides,” which could imply one between governments. Indeed, unless there were further indications not mentioned in the report, I consider this the most likely interpretation.

I believe that, from the very beginning of the Reagan Administration, the Soviets have sought some means of communicating directly with the White House. There were several such probes when I was Chargé in Moscow in 1981, but they came to nothing—in some instances because we turned them off explicitly, on Secretary Haig’s instructions. Later, of course, we had something of a dialogue going by the Kampelman-Kondrashev channel, but we blew the channel by discussing it elsewhere (Shultz to Dobrynin and Palmer to MFA in Moscow, along with briefings of Allies) so that its failure to achieve an arrangement regarding Shcharansky may have been, at least in part, our fault.7 (An implicit “ground rule” of these dialogues is that matters discussed in special channels are confined entirely to that channel, unless there is mutual agreement to go elsewhere.)

The result of all of this is that the Soviets probably continue to feel the need of some means of totally frank and non-committal discussion of issues, but are frustrated over how to do it. All their attempts up to now have, in effect, blown up in their face, and sometimes become [Page 451] public knowledge. If this hunch is correct, then it may explain why they are confining most of their current probes to ambiguous and vague “messages.” In addition, Shultz’s answer to Dobrynin’s direct question would not encourage them to think that we are amenable to establishing a private channel.

Can a Private Channel be Useful?

If it is handled properly, I believe it can. Principally because it permits a more direct input into and feedback from the Soviet decision-making process than are possible in formal exchanges. This flows from the nature of Soviet bureaucratic politics and the psychological mindset of the Soviet leaders.

—Though largely shielded from outside view, Soviet bureaucratic politics are enmeshed in a truly Byzantine maze. If a political leader wants to chart a new course on a key issue, he needs to have the ability to maneuver in the system which is denied him if proposals come through formal channels and evoke strong resistance from the outset from a powerful interest group.

—The Soviets are conditioned to disbelieve what is said publicly (their public statements are largely propagandistic, so they assume those of other countries are as well). They assume that we, like they, speak strictly in private when we are really serious. And they are most likely to believe statements they receive through intelligence channels. [3 lines not declassified]

—We ourselves have great difficulty conducting a formal dialogue completely in private, because of leaks. And we face at least some of the same bureaucratic problems as they do in dealing with formal Soviet proposals.

Handling it Properly

There are of course dangers in such private and unofficial communication:

—They can be used as a weapon in bureaucratic in-fighting, to the detriment of policy cohesion and with the danger of creating damaging fissures in the Administration; and

—They can be misleading if relied upon for binding agreements.

However, I believe these dangers can be avoided if we make sure that those cabinet officers with direct responsibility for the matters discussed (that is, the Secretaries of State and Defense) are kept in the loop, and if we use such a channel to clarify attitudes in advance of formal agreements in regular channels, and not as a substitute for the latter.

The mechanics are important. Ideally, such a channel should not be maintained by the most senior officials, since what they say is hardly [Page 452] separable from the US official view, and it is important to be able to float, without attribution, ideas to obtain a reaction. Essentially, the interlocutors are instructed to tag the “messages” to indicate the degree of authority. If he presents something as his “personal idea,” then this is a signal that we are willing to think about it but not yet willing to commit ourselves to it. If he says that he can convey something on specific authority, then—if the channel is working right—it means you’ve got a deal, and the question to be nailed down is how it is handled formally. (Unless it is self-executing—“when you do x, we will do y”—no deal should be considered definitive until it is in fact negotiated formally. But even then, the unofficial channel can be helpful in specifying procedures which minimize bureaucratic problems on both sides.)

From our point of view, it would be preferable to conduct the exchanges in Moscow, since we would probably get a more direct feel for Soviet attitudes that way. And it might be easier to control dissemination on our end. I did some thinking on the subject for Bill last August and attach (TAB C)8 my memo which describes one possible modality.

Is This the Time?

I think it is, since we need informal communication most during periods of tension. And unless we establish a channel and work it a bit, we cannot be confident of the status of “messages” when we really need frank communication (as during a possible crisis). The Kennedy Administration had great difficulty, for example, in assessing the value of the messages they were receiving through John Scali during the Cuban missile crisis.9 It turned out, of course, that they were in fact more accurate than the formal messages received from Khrushchev.

If the President decides he would like to have an unofficial channel, we should discuss the precise modalities and also how we go about setting it up. I suspect the Soviets feel that the ball is in our court at this point.

But whatever the decision is on this particular point, I believe we should take steps to activate the diplomatic dialogue in general. We lose nothing from talking privately (so long as we are reasonably careful about what we say), and refusal to do so only encourages a Soviet stonewall—and perhaps worse.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Robert McFarlane Files, Subject File, Soviet Union—Sensitive File—1983 (10/20/1983–11/07–1983); NLR–362–3–14–1–0. Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Although undated, the memorandum was likely sent on November 3 or 4.
  2. Not printed. [text not declassified]
  3. Not found attached.
  4. See Document 125.
  5. Suzanne Massie, author of Land of the Firebird: The Beauty of Old Russia, a cultural history of tsarist Russia, traveled fairly regularly to the Soviet Union during the 1980s and had contact with various Soviet officials and Russians.
  6. Dobrynin and Shultz met on October 28. See Documents 130 and 131.
  7. See Document 75 and footnote 3, Document 131.
  8. Not found attached.
  9. John Scali, an ABC News reporter, was used as a back channel during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. See Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XI, Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath, Documents 80, 85, 137, 195, and 197.