The State Department's white paper on El Salvador, published in February, contains factual errors, misleading statements and unresolved ambiguities that raise questions about the administration's interpretation of participation by communist countries in the Salvadoran civil war.

The white paper was the first significant initiative from the Reagan administration in the field of foreign policy.

The document, and the supporting evidence described as "incontrovertible," were taken by administration emissaries to many countries of the world last winter.

When the white paper was published, the major news media tended to accept the document at face value, but it has subsequently been challenged in several analyses, primarily by individuals and journals critical of American policy in El Salvador. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal added its reservation in a front-page story that said the white paper was flawed by errors and guesses.

The Journal's article prompted a statement from the State Department yesterday defending "the conclusions of the white paper," without replying to specific criticisms.

The Washington Post has been conducting its own inquiry into the white paper and the captured documents on which it was based. The inquiry was initiated to determine whether the evidence released by the State Department actually supported the department's sweeping conclusions.

This was a textual analysis, not an attempt to determine the extent of communist involvement in El Salvador, which cannot be determined from Washington.

The Post's inquiry indicates that on several major points, the documents do not support conclusions drawn from them by the administration. On other points the documents are much more ambiguous than the white paper suggested. Many of the documents contain no identifying markings whatsoever, though the State Department gives them concrete identifications.

In one key document, the State Department dropped a sentence from its translation into English, which undermines the department's characterization of the document.

The documents released by the State Department were only a small portion of the total found in two "caches." Both were found by police in San Salvador, one in November behind an art gallery, the second in January behind a false wall in a grocery store. Other documents from the same sources make available to The Post by the State Department actually contradict or differ substantially from the picture of the Salvadoran insurgency that is painted in the white paper.

Some of the broad conclusions in the white paper were simply not supported by the documents released with it. For example, the white paper made a much-publicized accusation that nearly 200 tons of arms had been delivered covertly to El Salvador, mostly through Cuba and Nicaragua. There is not concrete evidence to support this claim in any of the documents released with the white paper.

Some critics have charged that the documents were forged, but their evidence is essentially circumstantial, and the documents carry such meager identification that it would be hard to say just what had been forged if they were made up. The inconsistencies between the documents and the white paper do not prove that the white paper's conclusions are wrong, but they do raise questions about those conclusions and how they were reached.

The most substantial of the documents published with the white paper was a partial account of a trip purportedly taken by Shafik Handal, secretary general of the small Salvadoran Communist Party, which is part of the front of opposition groups now backing the guerrillas in the civil war.

Last summer, according to the document, Handel visited Moscow, Hanoi, the major East European capitals, Addis Ababa and Havana. The purpose of his trip was to line up donations of arms and equipment for the Salvadoran rebels, according to the captured document.

In the book of documents the State Department released with its white paper, this one was described as an "expert of report on trip to the socialist countries . . ." by Handal. The document carries no identification of any kind, nor any signature, but its contents do describe a trip taken by an unmaned "comrade" who was apparently seeking military aid for the Salvadoran rebels.

The white paper, in summarizing this document, makes it appear that Handel wrote it. In the book of documents released with the white paper, this document is not attributed to any specific author. A quick reading might suggest that it was produced by someone close to Handal in the Salvadoran communist party. But the one sentence in the Spanish original (also released by State), which the department dropped in its English translation of the document, seems to confirm numerous other hints within the document that it was written by a Cuban.

The dropped sentence comes at the end of a paragraph describing what is purported to be Handal's visit to Ethiopia last July. The document says the Ethiopians promised to contribute arms to the Salvadoran rebels, listing types of weapons. The last sentence says that this cargo of arms "will leave in our ship the fifth of August."

Since the Salvadoran rebels have no Navy of their own, it is unlikely that this was written by Handal or one of his associates. The State Department indirectly acknowledges that the document in question was written in Havana by translating its many references to "here" as meaning Cuba.

If this was a Cuban report on Handal's trip, why was it found in a cache of rebel documents in Salvador? This would seem to be a significant point, but the State Department ignored all questions about the origins of this untitled, unsigned document.

The white paper makes Handal's trip around the Soviet bloc, Vietnam and Ethiopia sound like an idyllic journey on which the traveler always got what he wanted (mostly arms, uniforms and equipment). Summarizing this document, the white paper recounts Handal's two visits to Moscow, one in early June and the other in late July. As the white paper notes, on the second visit Handal raised an issue that had come up earlier in his travels -- whether the Soviets would provide aircraft to transport arms that Vietnam planned to donate to the Salvadoran rebels.

In the white paper's summary, this is how that is described: "Before leaving Moscow, Handal receives assurances that the Soviets agree in principle to transport the Vietnamese arms."

The document itself tells a different story. According to it, Handal was repeatedly frustrated in Moscow, and reported his frustration candidly to whomever wrote the document. A senior Soviet communist party official told Handal, the document says, that "In principle, there is opinion in favor of transporting the Vietnamese weapons, but there has been no approval on the part of the leadership organs."

Handal, apparently angry, "made known through other channels his disagreement with the . . . lack of decision concerning the requests for assistance."

After two more weeks without a reply from Moscow, the document says, Handal began "expressing concern as to the effects that the lack of decision by the Soviets may have, not only regarding the assistance that they themselves can offer but also upon the inclination of the other parties of the European socialist camp to cooperate. . . ."

Neither this nor any other document released by the State Department indicates that the Soviets ever did provide the requested air transport. And this document is the only one that linked the Soviets directly to the Salvadoran civil war.

The white paper also suggests that the account in this document of Handal's visit to Hanoi (which, the document says, the Russians suggested and financed) plus the later capture of U.S. M16 rifles that could be traced back to Vietnam demonstrated conclusively that Vietnam was providing weapons to the Salvadoran guerrillas.

The evidence presented, however, does not confirm this. According to this document, Handal was promised a wide variety of arms in Vietnam, but the M16 assault rifle -- the basic weapon used by American infantry-men in the Vietnam war -- was not on the detailed list given in the document.

The M16s in question were found in a truck that was captured in Honduras en route to El Salvador, according to the State Department. "Approximately 100 M16 rifles, some of which were traceable to Vietnam," were found in the truck, the department said. Why only "some" could be traced to Vietnam was not explained.

On another point in this document, the white paper says: "The Soviet official [who dealt with Handal in Moscow] ask[ed] if 30 communist youths currently studying in the U.S.S.R. could take part in the war in El Salvador." In fact, the document says, it was Handal who asked the Soviets to give military training to 30 youths then studying in Moscow who wanted to fight in the war, a request the Soviets approved after repeated prodding.

Another document in the collection is described as a "trip report" recounting a visit by Salvadoran rebels to Managua, Nicaragua, last summer. The white paper draws on this document to describe a meeting between the Salvadorans and Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. "Arafat promises military equipment, including arms and aircraft," according to the white paper.

The document, however, includes only this parenthetical reference: " . . . On the 22nd there was a meeting with Arafat." There is not a single word in the document about Arafat promising arms and aircraft. Nor is there any information in the white paper about where the PLO might acquire aircraft to donate to the Salvadoran rebels.

One handwritten document in the batch is described by the State Department as notes on an April, 1980, meeting of the Salvadoran Communist Party written by the same Shafik Handal. On the face of it this is an implausible description: even to an amateur eye, it is obvious that the document is written in two distinctly different handwritings. The document contains no reference to Handal or to a meeting of the Communist Party, and it is not dated.

According to the State Department's translation of this document, its author says it is necessary to "put the party on a war footing." In fact the author of this part of the document did not use the phrase for war footing ("estado de guerra") but refers instead to a state of struggle or dispute ("estado de pelea"). The translation quotes the author as saying that the attitude of the socialist camp "is magnificant." He adds: "We are not yet taking advantage of it." In fact, though, the word "yet" does not appear in the original Spanish.

Another questionable translation appears at the end of another unsigned, undated document headed "Logistical Concepts," which outlines plans for intensified rebel activity inside El Salvador (among other things). pAccording to the State Department's translation, the document ends with the sentence: "This plan is based on there being an excellent supply source in Lagos [said to be a code name for Nicaragua]."

In fact, this document ends with this Spanish sentence: "Este plan partiria de que exista una real fuente de abastecimiento en Lagos." This is a conditional construction that should be translated: "This plan is based on the supposition that there exists a real source of supplies in Lagos," or, "This would be the plan if there is a real source of supplies in Lagos." The State Department removed this conditional sense, and changed the word "real" to "excellent."

Besides the documents published with the original white paper, the State Department's El Salvador working group allowed two Washington Post reporters to leaf through a batch of other documents captured in the same caches, including full versions of documents that were excerpted for release earlier. Read together with the documents released originally, these others draw a picture that differs in significant ways from the one in the white paper. These documents portray a guerrilla movement that is chronically short of arms and scrounging for more of them.

For example, among the documents released by the State Department is one described as an exerpt from a report on a meeting of the Salvadoran Unified Revolutionary Directorate (DRU movement. In the book of released documents it is dated Sept. 30, 1980, though the original (made available by the State Department later) is dated Aug. 30. In the English translation of the excerpt provided by State, the date is Sept. 1.

Whatever the right date, the short excerpt released by State is a list of weapons that Salvadoran communist party's "secretary general" [Handal] reported had been shipped to them by Soviet-bloc countries, which are said to be arriving in Nicaragua on Sept. 5. This is an impressive list of military hardware and supplies, including the weapons purportedly promised to Handal in Vietnam, Ethiopia and Eastern Europe.

Curiously, the list of weapons coming from Vietnam seems to be describing the same shipment listed in the report on Handal's trip discussed above; most of the items listed are the same on both lists. But inexplicably, this one differs on many details. For example, the trip report list said Vietnam offered 15,000 7.62 mm. cartridges for M30 and M60 machine guns; this second document says 480,000 such cartridges are coming from Vietnam.

In any event, the State Department included this small excerpt from a much longer document in its book of documents released with the white paper. It is obviously a list of equipment that Handal says is coming to Nicaragua for the Salvadoran rebels.

The full version of this document includes another section about the difficulties the rebels are having getting arms out of Nicaragua. It paints a picture that contradicts flatly the impression left by this other list. (This section was not released publicly, though it was made available to reporters who asked to see more of the captured documents.) Here are some excerpts:

"With regard to bringing weapons from Lago [described by State as the rebels' code name for Nicaragua]:

"a) The E.R.P. [The Popular Revolutionary Army in Salvador] has made two serious attempts and the F.S.L.N. [the ruling Sandinista front in Nicaragua] has stood in its way for reasons which in the opinion of the E.R.P. are subjective and at times wrong.

"The E.R.P. has air, water and land resources and is ready to make two trips per week.

"One reason for not using the maritime route is that the F.S.L.N. [the Sandinistas] says that the E.R.P. should not touch its shores; the E.R.P. agreed to stay out at sea but even this did not work.

"The F.S.L.N. [Sandinistas] claimed that by land the weapons the E.R.P. would bring in would be too few (it was 200 rifles). It also said that it would no longer allow the F.P.L. [the Farabundo Marti Popular Liberation Forces, the largest rebel group in El Salvador] to bring weapons by the methods it has been using.

"b) The P.C. [presumably the Communist Party] has reported that it cannot bring in large quantities but that it can bring in small quantities. . . ."

In other words, the State Department selected for public release a section of a document listing large quantitites of arms due to arrive in Nicaragua, according to the report of the man alleged to have arranged for their shipment. Another section of the same document reporting on the actual troubles the rebels were having bringing arms into El Salvador was not selected for public release.

The contention of the white paper that the Salvadoran rebels were enjoying the benefits of "nearly 200 tons" of communist-supplied arms and materiel is not supported anywhere in these documents, and is implicity refuted by many of them. In document after document there are reports of rebels short of arms, or looking for ways to buy arms, or exorting comrades to produce home-made arms, or plotting to kidnap wealthy Salvadorans thought to have access to private arsenals.

Document number 48 in the State Department's files (not released with the white paper) is described as a war plan of the Farabundo Marti Peoples' Liberation Front, described by State as "the coordinating board" of the principal leftist guerrilla groups. The document anticipates a military campaign that would last from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10 of last year. The document says it should be possible to bring 30 tons of arms into the country during November to prepare for this, but that the campaign could go forward even with less.

This document, dated Nov. 18, listed these guerrilla needs as of that time: 1,000 automatic rifles, four 50-cal. machine guns, 16 30-cal. machine guns, six M79 grenade launchers -- in other words, modest needs indeed compared to the huge numbers of weapons emphasized in the white paper.

Document 83 in the State Department's files, unsigned and undated, is a description of arms and equipment available to the guerrillas. The file copy includes this notation from a U.S. government official who read and evaluated it: "From this," the American wrote, "It would appear they had only 626 weapons for more than 9,000 men." This document was omitted from the collection released to the press with the white paper.

The heart of the white paper is the accusation that "over the past year, the insurgency in El Salvador has been progressively transformed into a textbook case of indirect armed aggression by communist powers through Cuba."

This is a characterization that the Salvadoran government does not accept; on a recent visit to Washington, the foreign minister, Fidel Chavez Mena, said the war in his country was first of all internal conflict, and secondarily an arena for the East-West contest.

The idea that the war in El Salvador is an internal, factional struggle does not appear in the Reagan administration's white paper. The anti-government guerrillas are described as part of the Salvadoran "extreme left"; and the white paper ignores the moderate elements, including former government ministers who belonged to the Christian Democratic Party of President Jose Napolean Duarte, who have joined the guerrilla cause.

Instead of the civil struggle described by Salvador's own government, the white paper perceived "a textbook case of indirect armed aggression by communist powers through Cuba.