Nagging fears that the Carter administration is going soft on human rights are being voted on Capitol Hill and in some private organizations concerned with the issue.
The feeling is by no means unanimous, and assertions about erosion in the administration's commitment to the high ideals Carter expressed earlier this year are hotly denied by the White House and State Department.
In fact, at a meeting last Tuesday felt it necessary to tell a group from the American Jewish Committee, "Look, don't think we're given up on human rights. We may be doing it differently, but there's no change in our policy."
The AJC members had come primarily to talk about the Middle East and had not yet brought up the question of Soviet policy on allowing people to emigrate to other countries.
"Mondale himself brought it up," recalled Hyman Bookbinder, the AJC's Washington representative. "He told us that President Carter had discussed the case of Anatoly Scharansky (a leading Soviet dissident who has been jailed since last March) privately with (Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A.) Gromyko" when he was here Sept.30. "Mondale told us the President was terribly disturbed about Scharansky and I think it's significant that the Vice President wanted that known," said Bookbinder.
Concern among congressional experts and groups interested in human rights has developed largely because the administration has shifted to quieter diplomacy on the issue.
Except for last week's strong denunciation of South Africa's massive crackdown on dissent, the United States has delivered no public denunciation of a specific country for a specific violation in months.
Rep. Donald H. Fraser (D-Minn.) who has conducted about 80 hearings on human rights in the last four years, said, "I think the quieter approach was what was required. Once the issue moves into quieter channels, the question is: what is happening?"
To try to find out, Fraser's House Subcommittee on International Organizations plans to hold a hearing today on the U.S. committment to human rights.
"In dealing with specific countries, I'm not satisfied that the administration is being as assertive as it should be," Fraser said. "But it's a little early to tell. We'll have to see if they remain committed."
Bookbinder says he notes "a significant change in style, but I don't care about that. I want to continue thinking the human rights commitment is really solid in this administration.
"We have some misgivings. Nobody can be sure how much the change of style is understandable and how much it starts cannoting that we're on the wrong track."
Joseph Eldridge, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a foreign policy and human rights group, said, "Rhetorically the administration has modified its position. Such a pulling back is bound to affect the whole momentum.
"Fundamentally, there is an easing away. We're watching very closely. We don't wonder about their implementation. Competing interests are going to play a much greater role."
Not all human rights organizations share the unease. Marine Wallach, director of Washington office of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, said confidently, "The administration has in no way backed down."
"Carter went in with all guns blazing. He raised everyone's consciousness. Then he decided to step away and see where the cinders fell."
Citing private representations to the Russians by Carter, Mondale, and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and the fact that emigration from the Soviet Union has gone up in recent months. Wallach said the administration continues to have "a strong, serious concern. You can't say we've pulled back just because we don't maintain a high level of stridency."
Bruce P. Cameron, legislative representative of the Americans for Deomcratic Action, said he thinks the administration was correct in lowering its human rights voice.
"All those high-level statements didn't do a damm thing to improve the situation for dissenters or political prisoners or emigration," said Cameeron, who also represents the Human Rights Working Group of the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy, which grew out of the anti-Vietnam war movement.
Edward F. Snyder, executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, said Carter "has a mixed record on human rights. With regard to giving military aid to repressive regimes, I see little difference between this administration and the Nixon-Ford approach."
Recent U.S. involvement in other nations' treatment of their citizens began in 1973, when Congress passed an amendment to the foreign aid bill that called on the Nixon administration to ask the Chilean government to "protect the human rights of all individuals."
But the next summer, when then-Ambassador to Chile David H. Popper discussed torture and other human rights violations with Chilean officials, then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger wrote an official State Department cable: "Tell Popper to cut the political science lectures."
By then Congress was also concerned with Soviet treatment of dissenters and would-be emigrants. Over administration objections, Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) pushed through an amendment to the Trade Act of 1974 saying no favored status would be granted to nations that deny emigration rights on reasonable terms.
Both houses also passed a "sense-of-Congress" resolution, as they had the year before, saying aid to countries that grossly violate human rights should be cut unless there were overriding security reasons for granting it or unless it would reach needy people.
In 1975 Congress insisted for the first time on reducing aid to a country - Chile - on human rights grounds, and in 1976 it cut off military aid completely to Chile and Uruguay. Last year it set up a human rights coordinator in the State Department and demanded annual reports on human rights conditions in nations receiving U.S. security assistance.
Last year and again this year the Senate House turned their "sense-of-Congress" resolution into law as part of the foreign aid authorization act. They also decided this year to require U.S. delegates to international banks to vote against loans to countries that violate human rights unless the funds would reach needy people.
And they wrung a promise from Carter that he would instruct the U.S. bank delegates to vote against aid to seven nations said to be gross violators of human rights, regardless of whether the money would aid needy people.
Carter had raised the human right inssue to a new level of international concern. Last fall he made it a central part of the his foreign policy during the presidential campaign.
In his inaugural address he said, "Our commitment to human rights must be absolute." During the following months he wrote a warm personal letter to the Nobel laureate and Soviet dissident leader, Andrei Sakharov; he joined a meeting here between Mondale and Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovksy; he denounced the slaughter of political opponents of Idi Amin in Uganda, and he reduced military aid to Argentine, Uruguay and Ethiopia on human rights ground.
But in the last several months, as the rhetoric subsided, certain administration actions and inactions have disturbed human rights activists. They include:
Carter's invitation to such dictators as Argentina's Jorge Rafael Videla and Chile's Augusto Pinochet to the Sept. 7 signing of the Panama Canal treaties.
Statements by Terence A. Todman, assistant secretary of state for Latin America, praising Pinochet for progress in human rights. "His idea of progress is a joke," said the ADA's Bruce Cameron.
Carter's failure to push for more reductions of aid to repressive regimes. Several congressional sources called the reductions to Argentina, Uruguay, and Ethiopia "cheap shots" because Congress had already cut off Uruguay and had indicated it would do the same to Argentine and Ethiopia.
The State Department's decision to give $2.5 million worth of military aid to Nicaragua while deferring indefinitely a $12 million economic aid package to that country on human rights grounds.
The administration's refusal to cut aid to South Korea, Indonesia or the Philippines, all of which are considered gross violators of human rights.
On the other hand, some human rights leaders and administration sources cite certain positive steps taken during the period of quieter diplomacy besides Carter's plea to the Soviets on behalf of Scharanksy:
Carter and Vance have often brought up human rights in discussions with foreign leaders. Vance has said that he has discussed the issue with more than 80 leaders.
Todman is said to be an effective advocate of U.S. human rights policy in private meetings with Latin American dictators. He, Carter, and Vance are known to have raised the problem of repression of Jews in Argentine withe Videla.
The United States opposed El Salvador's efforts last May to get a $90 million loan for an electric power project from the Inter-American Development Bank. Eldridge of the Washington Office of Latin America said that since then, El Salvador has made "tangible improvements" in human rights.
U.S. diplomats have made private, unpublicized representations to the rulers of such nations as Iran and Indonesia asking them to free political prisoners.
Perhaps the greatest problem to the State Department's human rights bureau is the "clientitis syndroms," as one Senate staffer put it, of some department desk officers who deal with specific countries.
"The desk officers think of their countries as clients, and their attitude is: 'Don't insult my client,'" he said.
Patt Derian, assistant secretary of state for human rights, admitted in an interviewed last week that "there is bureaucratic resistance." She would not name the balky bureaus, but other sources said they are the European, Latin American and Asian bureaus.
"It boils down to an intra-building struggle," Derian added. "Some parts of the bureaucracy say our concern for human rights will pass. But they are going to have to think again. The message of Congress is quite clear. We've staked our international reputation on this high ground. If there were any thought of pulling away, the political implications would be dreadful."
Human rights activists say a major signal of the administration's commitment on the subject will come early next year when Carter presents his first budget to Congress.
"Then we'll see how much military and economic aid he seeks for representative regimes," said Edward Snyder of the Friends Committee. "That will be the real test." CAPTION:
Picture 1, PATT DERIAN . . . notes bureaucratic resistance; Picture 2, REP. DONALD M. FRASER . . . plans hearing today