The United States yesterday condemned the conviction of six Czechoslovak dissidents, but in the process it triggered considered confusion about whether the criticism was intended to indict the Soviet Union for complicity in the matter.
Some State Department officials later said privately that the part of the statement of condemnation involving the Soviet Union had been badly worded and had not been intended to signal a get-tough approach toward Moscow. These officials said that if that portion had been seen by top-ranking department officials, it would have been changed or deleted.
However, other department sources said that the statement had been reviewed and cleared "at a responsible level of authority" and that its issuance marked it as a reflection of official policy.
These conflicting views seemed like an uncanny replay of the same improvised script that 2 1/2 years ago transformed concern about human rights into one of the most controversial features of the Carter administraton's foreign policy.
At that time, an unsolicited State Department comment on repression of human rights in Czechoslovakia was broadened to include the Soviet Union. That, in turn, led to weeks of clarifying statements by adminstration officials and unleashed a torrent of discussion about human rights that has continued throughout the Carter presidency.
The latest incident began when the department spokesman, Hodding Carter, began yesterday's daily news briefing by reading a statement accusing the Prague government of denying its citizens their "basic rights" by trying and convicting the dissidents. then, in a reference to the tight grip that Moscow has maintained over Czechoslovakia since the Soviet invasion of 1968, he added:
"The human rights of Czechs and Slovaks and their freedom to exercise these rights have obviously been a matter of interest to some of Czechoslovakia's neighbors who have had more than a little influence over the "internal affairs' of that country, in particular during the last 11 years."
That prompted a barrage of reporters questions about why the administration had included such a reference in its statement and what it might mean for future U.S. Soviet relations. In response, Carter referred to Czechoslovakia's former status as a democracy and said, "We are speaking to the fact that Czechoslovakia is not a stranger to traditions of freedom."
Later, department sources said, the statement had been drafted at a low level in the Bureau of European Affairs and had been given a routine clearance without being seen by officials who have the main responsibility for dealing with the Soviets. However, other sources said the statement was approved by officials dealing with European affairs and human rights at the level of deputy assistant secretary and assistant secretary.
It was all reminiscent of Jan. 26, 1977. The Carter administration had been in office only a few days when a State Department spokesman used the forum of the daily briefing to announce concern about the treatment of Czechoslovak intellectuals.
Surprised reporters asked if the department had any comment on Soviet harassment of dissident physicist Andrel Sakharov. The next day, the department responded with a statement saying: Any attempts by the Soviet authorities to intimidate Mr. Sakharov will not silence legitimate criticism in the Soviet Union . . ."
That was both front-page news and a surprise to President Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance. In the rash of clarifications that followed, it was explained that Vance had cleared the statement on Czechoslovakia, but that the one on Sakharov had been released by a deputy assistant secretary.
The incident got the administration's relations with Moscow off to a stormy start and unleashed a flood of controversy over whether human rights was a legitimate concern of foreign policy. But vance and the president stood by the statement, and, almost overnight an activist human rights policy became a major and continually discussed feature of the Carter presidency.
Yesterday, in condemning the conviction and the "unreasonably harsh sentences" given the dissidents, Hodding Carter said their trials "will obviously have an effect on our relations with Czechoslovakis." He refused to specify what that might mean.
However, reliable sources said the White House and State Department have been discussing possible symbolic gestures of U.S. disapproval, such as temporary recall of the U.S. ambassador in Prague. The problem, the sources added, is that U.S.-Czechoslovak relations already are so strained that the retaliatory options available to Washington are very limited and not likely to have much effect on Prague.
The convicted dissidents are Vaclav Havel, 43, a prominent playwright; Peter Uhl, 38; Vaclav Benda, 33, former spokesman for the Charter 77 human rights movement; former television commentator Jiri Dienstbier, 42; Otta Bednarova, 54; and Dana Nemcova.