Former president Carter intends to sue The Washington Post for printing an item in the Ear column Monday about rumors that the Carters had bugged Ronald and Nancy Reagan while they were staying at Blair House, former presidential press secretary Jody Powell said yesterday.
Powell called the report a "reckless, hurtful lie" and said the former president and Mrs. Carter plan to seek punitive damages "in the seven figures."
The Carters' Washington laywer, Terrence Adamson, yesterday hand-delivered a letter to Post executives demanding a full retraction and a public apology.
Adamson added in a telephone interview that even if a retraction is printed, "the present intention is still to sue."
Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee said yesterday that "we've got the letter and the lawyers are looking at it." He declined further comment, other than to say: "It will be perfectly obvious that there is no retraction in the paper tomorrow."
The Ear item in question recalled the flap of last December, when it was reported by United Press International that Nancy Reagan wanted the Carters to move out of the White House prior to the presidential inauguration so she could get a head start on redecorating.
Ear then added the following "hot new twist": "Now, word's around among Rosalynn's close pals, about exactly why the Carters were so sure Nancy wanted them Out. They're saying that Blair House, where Nancy was lodging--and chatting up First Decorator Ted Graber--was bugged. And at least one tattler in the Carter tribe has described listening in to the Tape itself."
Powell said that when he read the account over the phone to Carter in Atlanta on Monday, the former president "became very upset and concerned . . . . Not only does this defame and libel Mr. and Mrs. Carter, but it also damages the reputation of the American government. The clear implication of the report is that Blair House, an official residence of the government used to host foreign dignitaries, is bugged."
Powell said he later telephoned Bradlee to complain. Bradlee, he said, defended the story and said he knew its source.
The former president then decided on his own, Powell said, to hire an attorney and have him write the letter demanding a retraction and threatening suit.
The letter says the article "is false, defamatory, libelous per se, injurious to the reputation of President and Mrs. Carter, and was published with actual malice."
"The falsity of this criminal charge--that an incumbent president of the United States had bugged the conversations of his successor--could have been easily determined by even the most cursory of verification procedures," the letter continued.
It concluded that the Carters "are prepared to seek complete vindication of their rights by all appropriate legal means."
Adamson, a private attorney who had served as a special assistant to Attorney General Griffin Bell in the Carter administration, said in a telephone interview that "The Post's response will be one factor in whether there will be a final decision to sue," but added that "the present intention is to sue in any case." He said a decision would be made within a matter of days.
Powell noted that a retraction does not "in any way remove the legal grounds for action and in fact as a practical matter, it seldom if ever catches up with the original story.
"It is clear to me that The Post had good reason to know it was publishing a falsehood," he said. "If it was true they would have put it on the front page."
Powell said that on rare occasions when he was in the White House, he called or wrote to editors demanding a retraction, but that the president had never contemplated taking suit. "It's just not a practical thing for a sitting president to do," he said.
The decision to go ahead with a suit on this article is being made, he said, because "when someone publishes a reckless, hurtful lie about someone else and is allowed to get away with it, it encourages that sort of activity by others and it erodes the whole basis of support for the First Amendment."