WE CAN SEE why Jimmy Carter felt compelled to challenge this newspaper's Friday report on his SALT policy. As he seems to have read it, the story suggested he had secretly decided to go through the motions of negotiating with the Russians - but to avoid serious efforts at agreement. Once such a stragegy had been openly alleged in a serious forum, the president had to react in some way. And he did, branding the story "totally inaccurate," and going on to say, "It damages our country, it damages my credibility, and I think it damages the prospect" for a strategic arms limitation agreement.

But the president misfired. The headline on the Post story was perhaps too "hard" and open-ended: "White House Imposes Freeze on Strategic Arms Talks." But the body of the story made clear that the administration had "effectively" (or: in effect) frozen the talks "for the time being": two important qualifications. The story further indicated that the impulses behind the new tactic came from opposite political quarters. One impulse was to wait for an improvement in the political atmosphere, so as not to launch a SALT agreement into a storm likely to swamp it, and a second was to send Moscow a signal indicating displeasure with its actions in Africa. In brief, the story reflected the pushes and pulls on the president's policy. It was, after all, Jimmy Carter who, for all his devotion to arms control, said twice last week that Moscow's Africa adventures could affect the negotiation as well as the ratification of SALT.

This is, however, the sort of story that, merely by virtue of being reported, can generate pressure that impinge on policy. In the process of denying he had ordered a freeze, Mr. Carter set up areas of explicitness where he might have been better served by preserving ambiguity. He has now committed himself to "proceed agressively with SALt discussion," thus making it harder to hold up the talsks later either to improve prospects for ratification or to send Moscow one or another political signal.Without going into the question of how this particular story leaked, it is clear that if SALT enthusiasts had wanted pressure the president into a public commitment to negotiate "aggressively," they could not have found a better way.

The president has not conveyed either to his administration or to the public that he is guiding the SALT talks with a sure hand. It is a situation lending itself to leaks, to newspaper stories reflecting the veiled and changing reality, and to angry outbursts by a president uncertain how to get SALT firmly on the track.