IN THE WAKE of the uproar over the CIA/Hussein affair, President Carter has committed himself, both publicly and privately, to the proposition that a much better effort must be made by the government to keep its secrets - especially the CIA's secrets. This strikes us as fair enough. It is only after the government has lost control of its secrets (or abused its right to create them), after all, that you get into these wrangles over whether it is right or wrong to publish "secrets" once they have escaped the government's reach. Mr Carter, we are advised by an Associated Press dispatch in this newspaper on Saturday, has also committed himself, in private meetings with his Cabinet and with congressional leaders of both parties, to the proposition that it was "irresponsible" for this newspaper to publish 10 days ago the first account of the CIA's multi-million-dollar, under-the-table subsidies to Jordan's King Hussein over the past 20 years. And this, you will not be surprised to hear, seems to us to be not only quite fair, but also unrealistic and unwarranted by the facts.
The President, of course, is entitled to his view. And we would have to admit that it appears to be a popular one, judging from a representative sampling of letters to the editor on the subject elsewhere on this page. "Unpatriotic . . . irresponsible journalism of the most dangerous sort . . . in the vilest taste" - those are strong and sobering words. But we cannot help wondering, nevertheless, whether this outburst would have been quite as loud, or as nearly unanimous in its condemnation, if this newspaper - and here we find a certain irony - had not promised to keep a secret at the President's request. It is a relatively small secret, and we remain bound to honor it. But the White House has publicly confirmed some parts of it, according to a report transmitted by the United Press International. Yes, Deputy White House Press Secretary Rex Granum apparently told Helen Thomas of UPI and others on Saturday, "there was a communication" between the administration and The Washington Post prior to publication of the CIA/Hussein story. And yes, "there was no doubt what our preferences were . . . at least that the story not run while (Secretary of State) Vance was in the Middle East."
But no, the President "did not try to stop the story . . . it was simply an attempt to provide the context and the setting, to explain to them what the impact of the story might (be)."
Again again: "It was no request."
We bring this up today, For Your Information, because it strikes us as a classic example of the way government officials so often try to have it both ways when their own security breaks down and a secret escapes - and also of the problem that this presents to a newspaper. We will let you decide whether the President was, or wasn't, trying "to stop the story." Whatever the case, he had perfectly reasonable "preferences"; the story was embarrassing, even potentially disruptive, as many news stories are. But the President did not make the case against publication on grounds that the national security would actually be endangered - presumably because he did not have a case. He did not use, in that "communication" that Mr. Granum speaks of, the sort of language he apparently felt a need to use, after the fact, to convey his sense of outrage and his determination to tighten secrecy controls.
Other presidents have made the case for self-censorship on national security grounds - we can't off-hand remember one that hasn't. Some have even been heeded, and one, John F. Kennedy, went so far as to indicate his regret that he had successfully persuaded the New York Times to delay a story that would have revealed in advance the preparations for the Bay of Pigs. Other such requests have been ignored - and, come to think of it, in those cases we also can't recall offhand an instance when there has been anything like the damage that the government had grimly predicted would result.
So this newspaper follows a firm rule, in all but the most extreme cases, and so do most others that we know of: the safest, soundest practice is to publish a story as quickly as possible after it is ready to be published. To do otherwise is to fall captive to the government's whims or wishes - or to one's own. The point is not, as so many suppose, that newspaper publishing is necessarily a fiercely competitive business - a free enterprise. The real point is that newspapers cannot be true to their trust if they allow themselves to get in the position of managing the news, of picking and choosing - publishing or withholding - on the basis of anybody's hopes or fears of real (or fancied) consequences. "No newspaper, we suppose, would have kept the lid on" the CIA payments to Hussein, our colleagues at the Washington Star said in an editorial on Saturday. We agree.