Three business executives will go on trial in Alexandria next month in the first case the Justice Department has brought against defense industry employes accused of unauthorized use of classified Pentagon information to influence bidding for federal contracts.
The case will provide a test of the Reagan administration's use of espionage and theft laws to restrict the release of secret government information in the defense industry.
Government prosecutors will be seeking to prove that GTE Vice President Walter R. Edgington of Annandale, former GTE marketing manager Robert R. Carter of Mountain View, Calif., and former GTE consultant Bernie E. Zettl of McLean conspired to defraud the government's procurement process by illegally obtaining classified Navy budgetary documents.
Edgington and Zettl also are accused of violating a section of the espionage law and stealing government property by obtaining the documents.
The defendants suffered a setback Friday when U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris quashed subpoenas they sent to eight other major defense contractors asking for classified documents in their archives. The records were being sought in order to show that the secret information the men had obtained was widely held throughout the defense industry.
The charges under the theft and espionage statutes make the trial, set to begin Feb. 18, similar to the recent prosecution of Samuel L. Morison. The former Navy intelligence analyst was convicted late last year of theft and espionage for sending three classified satellite photographs of a Soviet military base to a British journal.
That was the first time a person was convicted under the espionage statute for leaking classified information to the press. The only other time the espionage law was used this way was the attempted prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo for releasing the so-called ''Pentagon papers.'' That case was dismissed in 1973.
Justice Department officials have said that the GTE trial is related to the administration's general concern about the disclosure of secret government information.
But they also are trying to end what Defense Department Inspector General Joseph H. Sherick described in a letter to Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) as ''potential widespread illegal trafficking in protected and classified'' Pentagon planning and budgetary documents by the defense industry, which uses the inside information to prepare bids on govenment contracts.
Robert Segal, a former government investigator on the GTE case, told a congressional hearing in the fall that at least 25 other companies were illegally getting classified Pentagon budgetary information. He called the GTE case ''the tip of the proverbial iceberg.''
Some critics have voiced fears that successful prosecutions of the three men on the theft and espionage charges could set a dangerous precedent that would be used against the press and others to keep classified information from the public, even when it did not relate to national security.
The use of the espionage statute in this case ''is dangerous, unconstitutional and inconsistent with the intent of the law,'' which is to prohibit release of secret information to ''hostile powers,'' said Mortin H. Halperin, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
To obtain a conviction on this statute, prosecutors from Justice's Defense Procurement Fraud Union will have to show that the document the three men got-a 1984 Navy Program Element Description (PED)-contained information related to national defense. Assistant U.S. Attorney David H. Hopkins has notified the court that he will show eight items in the 1,000-plus-page document that concern national defense.
What is ''more dangerous,'' in Halperin's view, is the government's effort to convict the three men of theft of classified information, as well as espionage or breach of national security.
Halperin called this dual-pronged prosecution an attempt to set up broad restrictive powers on the flow of closely held govenment information, which he compares with the Official Secrets Act in Britain. ''This is a real example of a chilling effect,'' Halperin said.
Stephen S. Trott, head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, called this ''nonsense,'' but declined to say anything more, citing the proximity of the trial.
Defense attorneys also have subpoenaed at lest 80 government officials who received a copy of the 1984 Navy PED. The government has acknowledged that the document was distributed to some 90 government offices, including 14 on Capitol Hill.
The government is seeking to punish their clients for ''engaging in conduct that was routine and pervasive, and that no one regarded as criminal at the time,'' defense attorneys argued in court papers.
According to the five-count indictment returned last September against the men, Zettl received about $119,000 between 1979 and 1983 for his consulting services to GTE, part of which was supplying the firm with classified documents. Despite their security clearances, the three men were not authorized to have the documents that they got ''from other-than-normal channels,'' the indictment said. The persons who gave the documents to Zettl have not been identified.