W. GRAHAM CLAYTOR, Secretary of the Navy, got all steamed up the other day over the leak to Aviation Week of certain information on the costs of new aircraft. It seems that the Secretary of Defense had asked the Navy to serve up some cost comparisons and Mr. Claytor was embarrassed and angry to see the figures in print before he'd digested them and passed them to his chief. It was not, evidently, that the leak compromised any decision in the offing - and the information was unclassified - but that it could give the impression that Mr. Claytor wasn't running a tight ship.

The Secretary might have contented himself with a salty expletive or two of a sort not totally unknown in naval circles. Instead, he ordered up an investigation of Navy sources to see whence the information had leaked. The rationale was that the confidentiality of the decision-making process has to be safeguarded. Well, we are not unaware that leaks can chill pre-decision discussion. But launching a formal investigation into the leak of unclassified information - information hot enough to have "leak me" written all over it - is rather like lobbing a Polaris missile into the officer's mess: not the most fitting match of weapon and target. In any event, as is invariably the case in these matters, the investigation was a dud. Perhaps it intimidated the next leaker; it certainly didn't catch the last one.

For the press and the public, however, there's more at stake. From the public's viewpoint it can be vital to learn of a decision before it's made - vital, that is, if you believe that the public has any right to participate in the handling of its affairs. What Mr. Claytor decries as the "premature or indiscriminate release of internal data used in the decision-making process" can be, to citizens, the timely disclosure of matters affecting their welfare. Mr. Claytor argues that "it is expressly to protect [the decision-making process] that the Freedom of Information Act exempts . . . internal working documents from automatic release." But the courts have held that the facts on which decisions are based - and in this instance it is facts that are the issue - are not similarly exempted: Under the FOIA such facts are open to release upon request. To justify the withholding of information under an act intended to promote the disclosure of information is to turn it on its head.