THE REAGAN administration has been in something of a retreat from the outrageous position on the press that the chiefs of two intelligence agencies expressed last week. William Casey of the Central Intelligence Agency and Lt. Gen. William Odom of the National Security Agency had "cautioned" reporters covering a current spy trial "against speculation and reporting details beyond the information actually released at trial." Subsequently, Mr. Casey took back the word "speculation" and, in the course of pronouncing the press reaction to his first words "hysterical," insisted he was not trying to tear up the First Amendment. The administration, a White House spokesman added, does not condone "prior press censorship or press censorship or in any way impinging on the freedom of the press to report information and events."
These assurances are welcome. They do not, however, erase the widespread suspicion that in reacting to press leaks this administration is pressing hard against the outer limits of reasonable behavior. It is not the first administration to feel plagued and persecuted by the porousness of government, or to identify its own embarrassment with a grievous assault on the national interest, or to take strong measures and to consider even stronger ones in order to ease its distress. Its fever, however, is very high. The coincidence of a rash of spy cases with the normal political wear and tear may explain some part of it. Whatever, the Reagan team badly needs to inject a dose of proportion into its responses to the rigors of political life and to show a keener appreciation for the liberties whose preservation is the first goal of government.
The Casey-Odom "caution" to journalists covering the Ronald Pelton spy trial in Baltimore shows precisely the flaw. The two intelligence men made a revealing admission. "Certain classified information" is being released at the trial, they said, going on to say in extenuation that the release had been decided on by "appropriate government authorities after careful consideration of the demands of trial and the potential harm that release of this selected data may cause the national security. The information thus selected has been carefully chosen to balance these competing interests."
The effort to keep secrets by prosecuting those who provide them to an enemy can involve some compromising of secrets; the tradeoff can agonize conscientious officials. The premise of the Casey-Odom statement, however, is that information is an official commodity and that only government can weigh "competing interests" and decide what part of it should be made public. We accept the government's right to establish a classification system. But we also assert the journalist's right to decide what we will publish. Journalists do not lose this right when an official wields a classified stamp.
Responsible journalists, moreover, are not promiscuous in the exercise of this right. They do consider "competing interests." Sensitive information that comes this newspaper's way is regularly and conscientiously screened for its possible value to an enemy. You will not be surprised that there are cases at the margin where the judgments of an independent newspaper and an official agency differ. But you are entitled to know -- and to expect -- that even as journalists rise to protest the very hint of official "cautions," they apply cautions of their own.