President Jimmy Carter, who had promised never to lie to the American people, told a whopper in 1980. Then he merely sought to distort the news; now he is trying to rewrite history.

The story can best be told chronologically:

On Sept. 20, 1980, we received an urgent telephone call from then-CIA Director Stansfield Turner. He asked us to kill the Sept. 22 column, which had already been distributed to newspapers. He informed us gravely that the column jeopardized national security.

We replied that the column was based on intercepted Soviet cables, that the Soviets knew the National Security Agency routinely intercepted their cables and that presumably they also knew what was contained in their own cables. So the column didn't reveal anything the Soviets didn't already know.

The Sept. 22, 1980, column appeared on schedule. It reported that President Carter was preparing a military assault on Iran as an "October surprise" to try to rescue the American hostages being held in Tehran, punish the regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and win support for his reelection.

The column also warned that the Kremlin had alerted its Warsaw Pact allies to prepare for a military confrontation in Iran and "was prepared to intervene militarily in the event of an American 'October coup' . . . . The Red Army has shifted significant numbers of men and materiel from Europe to the Iran region . . . . The Russians now have at least 23 divisions in position to move into Iran."

In response, Carter charged angrily that the column was "false, grotesque and irresponsible." We replied that, for security reasons, the CIA director had asked us to kill the same column the White House now claimed was false.

After the October mission was canceled and Carter lost the November election to Ronald Reagan and the hostages were home safe, veteran investigative reporter Richard T. Sale (now with Aerospace Daily) retraced the events. He wrote:

"When syndicated columnist Jack Anderson broke the story of a second Carter plan 'to invade Iran,' the White House officially denied it. Yet even as Anderson wrote, secret military rehearsals for the second mission had been taking place."

Now a Reader's Digest editor, John Barron, a former intelligence specialist, has concluded in his new book, "Breaking the Ring":

After the aborted hostage rescue mission, "the Carter administration laid plans to redeem itself in the eyes of the electorate by mounting a much larger attack upon Iran. During the summer, preparations proceeded in unprecedented secrecy . . . . With equal secrecy, the Soviet Union moved 22 full divisions to the Iranian border. They were all ready, just waiting . . . . Prudently, Carter canceled the raid."

Carter, meanwhile, continues to reject the accumulating evidence with benign stubbornness. He scrawled a note that reached Barron's publisher. "Barron's account is pure fiction," Carter wrote. He signed it "Love, Jimmy."