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


  • Thoughts on a Private Channel to the Soviet Leadership

I have compiled some thoughts on the whys and hows of a private channel which may be useful to you in further discussions with Secretary Shultz and the President. They are at TAB 1. Also, I have made an initial stab at describing what I would recommend discussing in a private meeting, if it is decided to arrange one (TAB 2).2 The latter is very preliminary and is meant to be indicative of the way the issues would be discussed. Some of the talking points need to be elaborated in more detail (particularly those for contingency use), and some key points are subject to decision and guidance. (The more important of these are underlined.)

Even if the Soviets accept a request for a meeting, we should not expect immediate results. They will doubtless wish to feel their way a bit and to gain some experience before they rely totally on the pledges of confidentiality. But even in the early stages, it would provide them a vehicle for conveying messages if they choose to send some. The most useful thing we are likely to obtain initially, however, will be comments which will improve our ability to assess Soviet priorities among the various proposals they have made, as well as hints as to how some of our proposals could be framed to make them more palatable.

I am not sure of the reasons for Secretary Shultz’s caution. If it is a fear of offending Gromyko, I would argue that the fear is misplaced: [Page 1080] if Gromyko does not want the meeting to occur, it will not. It is more likely that he would find it acceptable since it does not violate jurisdictional distinctions as the Soviets interpret them. In any event, requesting the meeting will do nothing to complicate anything we have proposed.

If it would be helpful for me to be present when the matter is discussed (to answer questions about how it could be done and the way the Soviets look at the various issues involved), I of course will be glad to join you.

Tab 1

Paper Prepared by Jack Matlock of the National Security Council Staff3

Some Basic Considerations

Reasons for Channel:

—Need for mechanism to consult privately, informally, and off the official record.

—Need for a better feel for the factors entering into Soviet decision-making.

—Need for conveying our views to the Soviet leadership without the Foreign Ministry filter.

—Need for total confidentiality, the best insurance for which is that the public and the bureaucracy be unaware that the channel exists.

Possible Modes:

—Use of Ambassadors in both capitals.

[While this is probably the best arrangement in theory, it is not immediately available to us because of Soviet bureaucratic hang-ups. It would, additionally, require an Ambassador who is and is believed by the Soviets to be an “insider” in the decision-making process and who can deal with all the issues comfortably in Russian—some important Soviet interlocutors are not comfortable in English and introducing interpreters undermines the informality necessary and discourages candor.]

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—Use of someone thoroughly familiar with the President’s thinking and the decision-making process in Washington, but outside the normal structure for diplomatic contact.

[The first qualification is necessary to ensure the reliability of the messages we send, and the accuracy of feed-back; the second to get around Soviet “turf” considerations. The latter are minimized when the contact appears to be “counterpart to counterpart.”]

—Use of a “special negotiator” from outside the USG.

[Potentially useful for discussions in a particular, well-defined area, but less so for broader discussions since a person not a part of the policy-making machinery would be hampered in interpreting and reacting to comments on the whole range of problems. It also runs a greater risk of becoming public knowledge.]

—Use of intermediaries for specific messages.

[Useful in arranging specific deals which are delicate for one or the other side (e.g., a prisoner exchange), but of limited utility for a broader discussion since it does not provide direct contact with persons active in the decision-making process.]

Soviet Attitudes

—They understand the need for confidential and informal consultation and will desire it if and when they are serious about solving problems.

—They would probably prefer to establish Dobrynin as the sole interlocutor, since this would serve their interest by giving them access to our decision-making process but denying the same to us.

—Since we have made it clear that an exclusive role for Dobrynin is not acceptable, there are indications that the Soviets will probably accept informal contacts in another form.

—“Knowledgeable” officials have been suggesting such since the beginning of the Reagan Administration (several approaches in 1981).

—Central Committee officials have periodically sent “messages” via third parties, implicit invitations to initiate a dialogue.

—We were informed earlier this year that White House/Central Committee contacts had been approved by the Politburo, including Gromyko.4

—The Soviets doubtless feel “burned” by some of the earlier efforts to communicate unofficially by other means.

—The contact with Kampelman backfired for reasons which are unclear, but our selective briefing of Allies may have played a role, [Page 1082] since knowledge of the contact was spread very widely among NATO delegations at Madrid, their home capitals and even their Embassies in Washington.5

—Publicity given the “walk in the woods” and the subsequent informal conversations between Nitze and Kvitsinsky is likely to make the Soviets hypercautious for some time to come in dealing with U.S. negotiators on the private level.6

—The facts that the abortive Scowcroft mission became public knowledge and that private comments by Soviet diplomats in Washington to senior U.S. officials reach the press rapidly also act to reinforce Soviet doubts of our ability or willingness to keep any contact completely private.7

—Once the election is over, the Soviet suspicion that we seek contacts for their own sake (i.e., just to claim that we are negotiating for a public impact) will be attenuated. If we judge that a private channel would be useful to us, it would be a good time to try again.

Basic Operating Principles

—A private channel should not be used as a substitute for any other mode of communication, but rather as a supplement which may help both sides to make formal channels as productive as possible.

—Both sides must insure that everything discussed in the channel, and knowledge of its very existence, is kept scrupulously confidential.

[On our side this will require direct knowledge of the channel to be limited to a very small number of the most senior officials, probably designated by name, and with a strict injunction against mentioning it to anyone not on the list, including personal aides and secretaries. Illustratively, such a list might include, in addition to the President, the Vice President, the National Security Adviser and his deputy, the Secretary of State and the Undersecretary for Political Affairs, and our Ambassador in Moscow.]

—It should be used for tactical policy guidance, not concrete negotiations or precise commitments. At most, commitments should be in contingent form (e.g., “if you do x, we will respond with y”). Any general understandings reached would be subject to confirmation and detailed negotiation in formal channels.

—All positions taken in the “channel”—including general guidelines for “personal remarks”—should be cleared in advance by the Assistant to the President for National Security and the Secretary of State, and as regards the more important issues, by the President personally.

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—A clear understanding should be reached on these matters (except those relating to internal USG procedures) at the outset, and it should be made clear that establishing the “channel” does not imply an effort to bypass any principal policymaker in either country.

Steps Necessary to Activate

If we decide that we wish to explore whether the Soviets are willing to allow private contacts between the White House staff and the Central Committee staff, we can initiate the matter as follows:

—Request Ambassador Hartman, by secure telephone, to pass a message to Zagladin that we do not fully understand some of the comments passed by his staff recently to us, and if he agrees, we feel a meeting might be useful.

—If the Soviets want to pursue the contact, he will respond favorably and set a date; if he does not we will know that the time is not ripe from their point of view.

—If Zagladin accepts, arrangements could be made to travel to Moscow for consultation with the Embassy (perhaps as part of a trip with other stops).

—If he prefers to meet here or somewhere in Western Europe, that also could be arranged.

—After setting a date, the talking points could be developed, discussed, and cleared in detail.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, Chronological File, 1980–1986, Matlock Chron September 1984 (3/5). Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Not for System. Sent for information. In a note on the attached routing slip, Poindexter wrote: “Bud, I asked Jack to put this package together. I recommend you discuss with George and try to get him to agree. You could also make the point about future Amb. to Moscow. I think this contact should be made before the Arms Control person is named just so they have a heads up and understand context. JP.”
  2. The talking points are attached but not printed.
  3. Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Brackets are in the original.
  4. See Document 195.
  5. See footnote 4, Document 295.
  6. See footnote 3, Document 6 and footnote 4, Document 137.
  7. See Document 193.