The Defense Department has passed the word to its civilian and military leaders that the Singlaub incident should not inhibit them in talking to reporters, Thomas B. Ross, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said yesterday.
Ross said that with the approval of Defense Secretary Harold Brown he told a recent meeting of the Armed Forces Policy Council "that the lesson to be drawn from this was not that military officers should not talk to reporters."
Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub was disciplined by President Carter for telling Washington Post reporter John Saar in an interview that Carter's plan to withdraw American ground troops from South Korea within the next five years "will lead to war."
Singlaub was removed from his post as chief of staff of U.S. command in Korea after The Post printed the interview. Last week Singlaub was reassigned to the post of chief of staff of the Army Forces Command at Ft. McPherson, Ga.
Ross, in relating the remarks he made to the Armed Forces Policy Council, comprised of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and top Pentagon civilians, added that "I said bad stories flourish in a vacuum. We're always much better off dealing with reporters and giving them a maximum amount of information because the story is going to come out better.
"So the word certainly has been passed," Ross continued, that Carter's disciplining of Singlaub for publicly criticizing a presidential decision "is not to be interpreted as grounds for military men not to talk."
Ross said "it is just too early to tell" what effect the Singlaub incident will have on relationships between the military and the press. Several military officers responsible for press relations fear the incident will make military leaders reluctant to be interviewed.
The Pentagon's top spokesman said that Singlaub and Sarr each has a version of the circumstances of the interview but that no one has challenged the accuracy of the remarks attributed to the general in the May 19 issue of The Washington Post.
"In the abstract," Ross continued, the argument over whether Singlaub spoke to The Post for background (nonattribution) or for the record "is a distinction without a difference.
"In strict terms, when policy is made, military men are not supposed to be talking on background" or on the record against the policy, he said.