The preliminary interrogation of Tongsun Park indicates that speculation on the number of officials criminally involved with him in the congressional influence-buying case has been "exaggerated," Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti said tonight.

Speculation that between 20 and 40 persons might be involved is "absolutely exaggerated" from the standpoint of possible criminal charges growing out of Park's testimony here, Civiletti said.

The Washington Post reported early in the investigation that as many as 22 members of Congress were under scrutiny by the Justice Department. It has since reported that, because of difficulties in tracing cash payments and missing witnesses, no more than about a half dozen criminal indictments appeared likely.

When questioned about many persons possibly involved, Park's responses were "totally negative" in the "vast majority" of cases, Civiletti said.

Civiletti also implied that Park's testimony here did not seriously implicate present members of Congress in criminal cases.

Civiletti said that on the basis of Park's responses so far "with regard to criminal actions there are only a handful of possible criminal charges against former officials and non-officials."

The Justice-Department official also deplored leaks to newspapers about persons mentioned in Park's testimony who allegedly accepted large sums of money in the scheme to win support for South Korea in Congress.

He called the leaks "regrettable" and said they might come close to "breaching the spirit" of the joint U.S. South Korean agreement under which Park is being questioned here.

He said, however, that he does not believe that the news stories would cast a legal cloud over any potential prosecution of those named. He said no Justice Department official was involved in the leaks.

Civiletti was interviewed tonight as he prepared for the renewed questioning of Park on Monday morning in the Seoul District prosecutor's office. Park was questioned Friday and Saturday about a large number of possible recipients of his largesse.

Civiletti said that the renewed interrogation will zero in on details of the alleged scheme to influence Congress. Questions during the first day and a half he said, comprised a "survey" of the case, apparently intended to measure the scope of possible involvement by members and past members of Congress and the Executive Branch. Civiletti refused to comment on any specific allegations of bribery or gift-giving.

There has been a variety of reports on the number of persons potentially implicated in the case and the accounts have ranged from gifts of jewelry and samll sums of money in some instances to thousands of dollars in others.

"The survey interrogation confirms that speculation about the involvement of great numbers of officials has been wildly exaggerated," he said. "It confirms our view that insofar as serious and careful evaluation with regard to criminal action is confirmed there are only a handful of possible criminal charges against former officials and non-officials."

Civiletti declined to specify how many persons were meants by the term "handful."

Park gave negative answers to questions about the overwhelming majority of items on which he was interrogated, he said.

Although seeming to rule out criminal charges against a large number of people, Civiletti said he was not passing judgement on whether some of the actions testified about may have violated congressional ethics.

According to news accounts this weekend, Park has named five former congressmen as having received the bulk of the payments from him while dozens of others received from several hundred to $2,000.

Civiletti called the leaks of specific persons' names and cash amounts "regrettable" and said that they "could be seen as coming close to breaching the spirit of the confidential circumstances of the interrogation."

He also said the leaks infringe on the "rights and reputations of innocent people."

But he said the disclosure "does not in my judgment compromise" the potential prosecution of those whose names were mentioned.

The source of the stories has not been publicly identified.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bruce Caputo (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Ethics Committee who has been an observer at the questioning sessions, left Seoul today for the United States.