The Carter administration, for the first time yesterday, was openly critical of Andrew Young after the controversial U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told a French newspaper there are "hundreds, maybe even thousands of people I would call political prisoners" in U.S. jails.
The remark by Young appeared to seriously embarrass the Carter administration efforts at a crucial moment in U.S. to influence Soviet treatment of dissidents.
Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance had what State Department officials described as an "unprintable" reaction to Young's remark.
White House press secretary Jody Powell, when asked about the remark, said statements regarding U.S. foreign policy "come from the president and the secretary of state, and this particular statement does not reflect the policies of this administration."
Several congressional figures who have attacked Young's free-wheeling statements in the past swiftly renewed the criticisms yesterday.
Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), called his remark "lies" and said he should be fired if he could not substantiate it. Sen. Dewey F. Bartlett (R-Okla.), said Young had "fully undermined" U.S. efforts to marshal world opinion to compel the Soviet Union to comply with its obligations as a signatory of the Helsinki pact.
Goldwater, at the request of Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd, read an account of the Young interview to the Senate.
The interview was in the Paris newspaper, Le Matin, yesterday, hours before Vance met with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Geneva to deliver a strong personal message from President Carter to Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev expressing concern over Soviet treatment of dissidents, especially two leading dissident figure now on trial.
There were expectations here and in Geneva that, regardless of the context of Young's remark, it would be seized on by the Kremlin to deflect U.S. efforts to win better treatment of dissidents by the Soviet Union - a key foreign policy goal of the Carter administration.
In the interview, Young was asked what explanation, he had for the Soviet decision to begin the trials of dissident leaders Anatoly Scharansky and Alexander Ginzburg on the eve of the Vance-Gromyko talks on strategic arms limitations.
"Oh, it's certainly a gesture of defiance and independence on their part," Young said. "But that will not prevent the continuation of the SALT talks. Besides, we don't know what will become of the dissidents. After all, in our prisons there are also hundreds, maybe even thousands of people I would call political prisoners.
"Ten years ago, I was sentenced, myself, in Atlanta for organizing a protest movement. And, three years later, I was in the Georgia legislature. It's true that things don't change so quickly in the Soviet Union, but they do change there, too."
Powell, after saying that Young's remark did not reflect the administration's policies, attempted to soften its impact by saying that Young had used the term "political prisoners" in its "broadcast context."
While the White House has been aggressively protective of Young after previous controversial remarks, however, Powell's attitude yesterday [WORD ILLEGIBLE] displeasure.
Young, in Geneva on U.N. business, confirmed the quoted remark. But he told Associated Press that there were "likely to be tens of thousands" of political prisoners in the Soviet Union.
While "there is nobody in prison in the U.S. for critizing the government," he said, "there are all varieties of political prisoners."
In the United States, he said, people can be in prison "much more because they are poor than because they are bad. But that's a problem we are working on and one on which we are making great progress."
State Department spokesman Hodding Carter III, in a point-by-point rebuttal of elements of Young's interview, also took exception to his statement that "our relations with the Soviet Union are good at all levels except publicly."
Carter quoted Vance as having said that there are aspects of both competition and cooperation in Soviet-U.S. relations.
Young, a close personal friend of President Carter from their time as state politicians in Georgia, stirred controversy shortly after his nomination in 1977 when he called the Cuban forces a "stabilizing influence" in Angola.
Later, in an interview with Playboy, he called former presidents Nixon and Ford "racists . . . not in the aggressive sense but in that they had no understanding of the problems of colored people anywhere."
He aroused Swedish ire by saying that "the Swedes are terrible racists," and he jostled sensitive U.S.-South African relations by remarking that Vorster is "very much over the hill intellectually and in every other kind of way."
In the second portion of his interview with Le Matin, which is to appear today. Young goes beyond previous U.S. criticism of Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith, saying that he suspects the Smith government of responsibility for slayings of white missionaries. Smith has blamed the slayings on black nationalists.
"If it is a planned operation of attacks on the missions, which it seems to have been in the last few weeks," Young said, "then I would say that it could only come from Smith's camp."