White House press secretary Jody Powell said yesterday that The Washington Post displayed a "very responsible attitude" in its dealings with the White House prior to the newspaper's decision to publish a story about secret Central Intelligence Agency payments to Jordan's King Hussein.
At his regular news briefing, Powell refused to characterize President Carter's attitude toward publication of the story, which he said Carter preferred be kept "private."
Powell was questioned about the issue because of an Associated Press story over the weekend that said the President had told a group of congressional leaders that The Post was "irresponsible" in publishing the story and that he had sought to discourage the paper from printing it.
The story, written by Post reporter Bob Woodward and published Feb. 18, reported that for more than 20 years the CIA made secret, annual payments that totaled in the millions of dollars to Hussein, a longstanding U.S. ally in the Middle East.
Carter was unaware of the payments before taking office and ordered them halted when he learned of them, according to the story.
Powell yesterday described a series of telephone conversations between White House and Post officials that culminated in a meeting of Carter, Woodward and Post executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee on Feb. 16 in the Oval Office. Powell said officials of the newspaper had asked if the White House had information "that they should know about" in connection with a decision whether to publish the story and had "made a goodfaith effort" to obtain such information.
Powell said that during the meeting Carter left "no doubt" that he preferred that the story not be published. Asked if the President had told The Post it would be irresponsible to go ahead with publication, Powell said the only discussions he knew of had to do with the impact such a story would have on Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance's mission to the Middle East. Vance arrived in Jordan the day the story was published.
"There was no claim on our part that this in a direct sense would endanger the security of the nation . . .," Powell said.
Concerning the AP report of Carter's conversation with the congressional leadership, the press secretary said:
"How the President felt about that editorial decision [to publish the Hussein story] - and he recognized it was The Post's decision - is a matter the President considered to be private and intended to remain private. We regret that it did not."
Powell reasserted the President's contention that the CIA is not engaged in "illegal or improper" activities, implying, but not stating directly, that this also was the case in the Hussein payments. Asked why Carter then chose to stop the payments, Powell suggested it was a matter of policy separate from the questions of legality and propriety.
"I do not man to imply that we will not change thins that were done before," he said. "That is a judgment that every President must make and we will make."
In an interview published in Newsweek magazine this week, Hussein suggested that the story of the payments originated with pro-Israeli factions seeking to halt Middle East peace talks.
"It was hardly coincidental that these attacks were made as the peace offensive was picking up steam and on the very day that Secretary Vance arrived in Amman," he said. "It is obvious to me that those who wish to sabotage the peace process - and help Israel stay put in the occupied territories - are even willing to engage in character assassination of persons whose dearest wish is for a just and durable peace."
In another development yesterday, the President revoked his order that all Cabinet secretaries read the regulations issued by their departments. He told the Cabinet that the order had served its purpose by exposing them to the volume and complexity of government regulations.