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'Hit list' clouds US efforts to look serious about arms control

The controversy over a proposed ''hit list'' of arms control officials is likely to complicate the Reagan administration's efforts to convince critics that it is serious about arms control.

Retired Gen. Edward Rowny, chief of the US delegation to the strategic nuclear reduction talks with the Soviet Union, gave the list several weeks ago to his prospective boss, Kenneth Adelman, President Reagan's nominee to head the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). The memo is said to criticize 18 arms control officials. Some are accused of wanting an arms control agreement ''at any price.''

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Mr. Adelman has said that he did not solicit the list and has no intention of instituting a purge of the arms control agency. Secretary of State George Shultz told the Washington Post March 12 that questions concerning the memo are ''beside the point,'' because Rowny had issued a statement saying the memo consisted of informal ''talking points'' prepared by aides and did not represent his views.

But specialists on arms control both in the State Department and in the Congress are convinced that unless the administration plays its arms control cards carefully, the hit-list memo will:

* Raise new doubts in Western Europe about the seriousness of the administration's approach to arms control.

* Make it more difficult for the administration to secure Senate approval for Mr. Adelman's nomination.

There seems to be agreement among specialists in the Senate that Adelman himself behaved correctly with regard to the Rowny memo. But at the same time, some Senate critics argue that the memo is likely to hurt Adelman. The debate in the Senate over Adelman's nomination has become a battle not so much over Adelman's qualifications as over the administration's arms control policy as a whole. Some of the critics want to use their rejection of the nomination to ''send a message'' to the administration, urging it, in effect, to show more flexibility in arms control negotiations with the Soviets.

Critics claim that they now have more than 40 senators out of a total 100 either firmly opposed to Adelman's nomination or leaning in that direction. A majority would be required to reject the nomination.

At the same time, Adelman, in private meetings, has impressed some senators and staff members as being intelligent and competent. He appears to be better prepared to answer questions now than he was when he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The committee recommended that the Senate reject his nomination.

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The controversies over both Rowny and Adelman have arisen at a particularly delicate moment in the arms control negotiations in Geneva. The US-Soviet talks on medium-range nuclear missiles go into recess on March 28. West European leaders are urging the Reagan administration to come up with a proposal for an interim agreement with the Soviets, which the West Europeans would presumably like to see placed on the table before that break. Otherwise, says one West German analyst, an appearance of intransigence on the part of the Americans will give the Soviets a major propaganda advantage during the break and help to send antinuclear demonstrators into the streets of West Germany.

Administration officials are reported to be giving top-level consideration to the possibility of making a new proposal to the Soviets. But the administration is divided on the issue.

In an appearance on the CBS television program ''Face the Nation'' Sunday, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said that the administration was still waiting for a serious proposal from the Soviet Union in response to the ''zero-option'' proposal made earlier by President Reagan. Mr. Weinberger said the administration was concerned that if it agreed to an interim arrangement that fell short of the zero option, which calls for eliminating an entire class of missiles, the Soviets might have no incentive to move beyond that in further negotiations.

Weinberger did not completely exclude the possibility of an interim agreement. But in an article in a recent issue of the New Yorker magazine, John Newhouse, a former Carter administration arms control specialist, says that Weinberger was a leading critic of an interim approach that had been explored in Geneva last year by Ambassador Paul Nitze and his Soviet counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky.

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