President Cartar yesterday angrily denied he had "frozen" the startegic arms limitation talks (SALTS) with the Soviet Union and declared that a Washington Post report to the effect "damages" the prospect for reaching such an agreement.
Carter, whose eariler denial was carried in the same Friday editions in which The Post reported his administration had "effectively frozen" the SALT negotiation at least through summer, summoned reporters and photographers to the Oval Office yesterday morning to underline his disagreement with the article.
With a copy of the newspaper in front of him of his desk, Carter said The Post had been told in advance that the report was "totally inaccurate."
"The editors decided to go ahead with it anyhow," he said. "It damages our country, it damages my credibility, and I think it damages the prospect for continuation of the basic policy of our government, which has not change since I came to office . . ."
The President said that policy is "to proceed aggressively with SALT discussions, to conclude a treaty as early as possibly and without delay because of political considerations, and to make sure that treaty, when conclude, is the best interests of our country."
Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Post, said that "with the greatest respect, we still believe that our information is correct . . . that recent decisions taken by the administration have had the effect of freezing SALT negotiations in such a way that agreement this summer is precluded."
The Post article, citing unnamed "authoritative government sources . . . close to Carter and in key government agencies," attributed the decision to changes in the domestic and international political climate.
The White House press secretary Jody Powell, in a press conference after Carter's statement, asserted that neither the administration's criticism of Soviet and Cuban actions in Africa nor warnings from leading congressional Democrats of the untimeliness of bringing a SALT treaty before the Senate this election year would be allowed to delay the negotiations.
"We are not . . . going to delay of put a freeze on these negotiations because of Africa or because of domestic political considerations," Powell said.
In Cleveland, Paul C. Warnke the chief U.S. negotiator in the strategic arms talks, said he had been assured by the president that The Post report was unture, adding that he planned to pursue the negotiations.
As the State Department, officials said there would be another round of arms talks between Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko, but the date and place have not been set.
Warnke and others have said that only three issues remain to be settled for a new SALT agreement. But eariler hopes of a breakthrough that could lead to a summit meeting this summer between Carter and Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev have faded. A Gromyko-Carter meeting last Saturday and a followup session on Tuesday between Vance and Gromyko failed to resolve the disagreements. Powell said yesterday he could not predict when agreement might be reached.
Carter's Oval Office denunciation of The Post report was the sharpest criticism he has leveled at a newspaper since becoming president last year.
Powell noted at his briefing that he had gone to Carter Thursday night, when The Post asked for comment on its report, and the president said the report was "absolutely untrue."
That quote and a supplementary sentence of denial from Powell were carried as the third and fourth paragraphs of The Post article. But when Carter saw the newspaper yesterday morning, aides said, he decided further steps were required.
Carter called Powell at home shortly before 7 a.m., and the press secretary was quoted by United Press International as saying, "he was about as angry as I've ever seen him."
Two hours later, he called reporters into the Oval Office "to make it clear on the record that this story is inaccurate and that our policy is unchanged . . ."
A very smiliar report, by William Beecher, was pulbished in the Boston Globe on Thursday morning and had been the subject of a State Department denial.
Beecher's article said, in its opening paragraph, that "the Carter administration for both foreign and domestic resons has decided to stand pat with its (SALT) position, even if it means waiting out the Soviet Union for several months."
After State Department spokesman Hodding Carter was pressed by reporters skeptical of his denials, confirmation of his stand was sought from the White House by State Department officials.
They were told that the denial was on sound grounds. They were told that there had been an argument made for delaying the negotiations, but the president had come down against such a strategy.
Hodding Carter said at his briefing yesterday that there was renewed concern when The Post account appeared, because "when the Soviets read assertions in the newspapers that are directly contrary to what the president and the secretary of state have been saying to them, they may get the impression they are being diddled . . . The president could not have been clearer or more explicit, regardless of what those at lower levels say through leaks the policy is."
Hamilton Jordan, assistant to the president, said Carter was also concerned about the effect of the report on his personal credibility because it appeared to put Carter in the position of denying publicly a decision he had made privately. Jordan said there was no such "freeze" decision.