The Immigration and Naturalization Service abruptly recinded yesterday a letter sent to 69 colleges and universities in the District and Virginia that had demanded that the schools provide detailed academic and personal information about the status of their Iranian students.
The INS took the action because the letter had inadvertently required the colleges to provide the information directly to the federal agency. The intention all along, INS officials said yesterday, was to have the colleges turn the information over to the students, who then would provide it to the INS.
"It was just wrong," said Stanley E. McKinley, eastern region commissioner for the Ins, speaking of the letter. "Our instructions were that the schools should furnish the information to the student, not directly to the district office."
The letter had sent shockwaves through the academic community here because it appeared to be an unusually broad request for information about the 3,600 Iranians estimated to be attending the 150 colleges and universities in the area.
Yesterdays action by the INS followed protests by several of the colleges that they were prohibited by federal law from releasing such information.
INS officials said the letter had been delivered by hand to 29 colleges here and that letters to 40 other colleges were in the mail when the decision to rescind the letter was made. All colleges receiving the letters were notified by telephone yesterday to disregard the instructions, officials said.
McKinley, the regional commissioner, said the letter was "an honest misinterpretation of directives from the central office" of the immigration service.
The letter, dated Nov. 13 and signed by Kellogg H. Whittick, district director for Washington and Virginia, said that "each school . . . must provide, in writing to this office, the following information, in letter form, re each (iranian) student enrolled."
Among the information required were such things as the student's course load, attendance, whether the tuition was paid and the student was in good standing, and the student's current home address.
Whittick said yesterday that he wrote his letter based on instructions he received by telephone from the Eastern regional office in Burlington, Vt., earlier this week.
According to Whittick's copy of the directives, each "school (is to) provide letter regarding each student."
McKinley blamed the misinterpretation on the "hectic" atmosphere that followed President Carter's decision to deport out-of-status Iranian students and said that the directive should have read that each "school (is to provide letter to each student regarding" that student's status. $"As far as I'm concerned, it's one of those things that happens," McKinley said. "It certainly wasn't Kelly's (Whittick's) fault."
Almost as soon as the letters were delivered to the 29 schools, INS officials said they began receiving queries about the letter's legality.
"The letter asked specific information about students" said Pat McMillan, director of international student advising at George Washington University. "We have a lot of legal questions about whether we can provide the answers."
At Catholic University, one official said that when the letter was delivered to the school, university officials protested immediately, that the Buckley Amendment to the Privacy Act prohibited them from releasing information about students to anyone without student permission.
The INS agent who delivered the letter argued that the Privacy Act permitted the INS to obtain the information.
Yesterday, INS officials continued to dispute the universities' assertions that they could not provide the information. However, the officials said that the question was moot since they had never intended to request that the information be provided directly to them in the first place.
"We've caught it pretty good for so long that what we're trying to do is be very, very carful," McKinley said. "The best policy by far is for the schools to provide the information to the students and for them to provide it to us."
Earlier, Whittick had been involved in another "misinterpretation." In a memo, he directed immigration officials here to question incoming Iranians about whether they supported the U.S. government or had ever participated in anti-American demonstrations.
David Carliner, a lawyer representing Iranians in this country, complained on Wednesday to the INS about the order from Whittick. This protest prompted David Crosland, acting director of the INS, to say that Whittick had directed immigration officials to ask "the wrong kind of question."
Meanwhile, federal and city officials yesterday continued to closely monitor local events related to the Iranian situation.
The officials , under White House pressure to limit protest actions that could trigger retaliation against the American hostages in Tehran, have been carefully reviewing numerous demonstration permit requests in consultation with the State Department Secret Service and Justice Department.
One permit, for a Marxist faction of the Iranian Students Association that had planned to demonstrate in Lafayette Square yesterday, was revoked by National Capital Parks director Jack Fish.
Fish cited a "clear and present danger" provision of federal regultions and the "strong advice" of the State Department that any violence growing out of the demonstration here "would create an unacceptable risk to provoking ann uncontrollable deterioration in the situation in Tehran."
In contrast, the park service agreed late yesterday to permit another demonstration -- this one for a combined group of American and Iranian students who say they are promoting a peaceful resolution to the situation in Tehran.
The group, called Students in Opposition to Violence, plans to march next Tuesday from Lafayette Square to the Iranian Embassy at 3005 Massachusetts Ave. N.W.
The park service and Capital Police denied two other permits last week. The unusual action of invoking the "clear and present danger" regulation has drawn the criticism of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has threateded to go to court to stop it.
In another development yesterday, the Moslem Students' Association here accused the American press of distorting the hostage situation in Tehran in an effort to inflame popular sentiment against the Iranians.
Association spokesman Abdullah Nahidian said at a press conference that U.S. television networks and newspapers, including The Washington Post, have failed to expose the "many murders and other crimes" of the shah that triggered the takeover of the American Embassy. Also, he said, the media have published inflammatory pictures calculated to arouse anger against Iranians.