Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. was caught in a new controversy yesterday over reported criticism of Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for her performance during the debate over Israel's attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor.
The controversy stemmed from a report in yesterday's New York Times in which unnamed aides to Haig portrayed him as single-handedly preventing Kirkpatrick from accepting unduly harsh anti-Israel positions during the negotiations that led to Security Council adoption of a resolution condemning the June 7 attack on the plant outside Baghdad.
The report of this criticism so upset President Reagan that yesterday morning he called Kirkpatrick in France, where she is vacationing, and praised her for a "splendid job" in negotiating a compromise with Iraqi officials on the language of the resolution, a senior White House official said.
White House officials also were in touch with Haig, who denied being the source of the criticism, the official said.
Haig, who was in Honolulu at the end of a two-week trip to China and other Far East countries, interrupted an afternoon of rest to appear at the hotel of traveling State Department reporters to deny any dissatisfaction with Kirkpatrick. Haig said he was "shocked and disappointed that such a story should be written and more importantly, that it should be attributed to one of my aides, or more."
Haig said any such statements by aides were "misformed" or misinterpreted" and that "they do not reflect my personal views and they do not accurately reflect the consultation process which took place between the president, Mr. [Richard V.] Allen, Ambassador Kirkpatrick and myself." He said Kirkpatrick "did a superb job, which has been characteristic of her performance at the United Nations from the outset."
After issuing the statement, Haig abruptly walked out of the hastily improvised press conference without answering any questions. The secretary is to meet Reagan in Los Angeles this afternoon to report on his Asian trip. The meeting was planned before the Kirkpatrick controversy developed.
White House officials traveling with the president in Texas and California where clearly upset by the controvesy. After a rocky start in relations between the White House and the outspoken secretary, there had been a period of relative calm in which the administration did its utmost to present a united front on foreign policy issues.
It was not clear whether Haig authorized his aides to speak critically of Kirkpatrick. But whether he did or not, the report of the criticism coming from senior Haig associates threatened to revive the image of the secretary as a volatile free-lance operator, the antithesis of the kind of "team player" Reagan and his most senior advisers are said to prefer.
It also sullied what had been widely regarded as a personal triumph for Kirkpatrick in her first major undertaking at the United National, and an important diplomatic accomplishment for the United States in finding compromise language that did not call for the imposition of sanctions against Israel.
The Times report said Haig's role in the negotiations over the resolution's language was described to reporters by aides aboard the secretary's plane and in Wellington, New Zealand. The aides were not identified, but it is known that this amount was supplied to the Times and to The Wall Street Journal by Dean Fisher, Haig's normally cautious press spokesman, and Richard Burt, a former Times reporter who is director of the State Department's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs.
The Times report quoted the aides as saying Haig twice had to intervene in the negotiations from Peking and Manila to prevent Kirkpatrick from accepting resolution language that was considered to anti-Israel. They also said that Haig telephone Iraq's foreign minister in New York foreign minister in New York from Manila and won his acceptance of language that Kirkpatrick had said was impossible to obtain, according to the report.
Administration officials rushed to Kirkpatrick's defense. State Department spokesman David Passage called the Times account of how the negotiations unfolded "not true" and praised Kirkpatrick for her "unusually skillful" handling of the delicate talks.
Passage also said there were "factual errors" in the account that made him doubt whether the unnamed sources "accurately reflected" Haig's views. Pressed on this, Passage would say only that the description of Haig's call to the Iraqi foreign minister was "not true."
At the United Nations, Kirkpatrick's duty, Charles Lichenstein, said Haig's call came shortly after full agreement on the language had been reached and therefore "had absolutely no impact on or investment in" the negotiations.
Carrer diplomats at the U.N. who were involved in the talks also characterized as "baseless" the descriptions in the Times account of the kind of resolution language Kirkpatrick was willing to accept.