I come out somewhere across the field from most critics of the "Unvarnished Haig Story." I participated for over 12 years in the kind of meetings that were reported in Bob Woodward's Feb. 19 front-page piece. At those meetings--with secretaries Dean Rusk, William Rogers and Henry Kissinger-- there were serious policy discussions, some free-for-all, irreverent comments and a fair amount of hot air, winter and summer. There was a lot of notetaking, which is the blood that pumps through the institution. To be sure, there were leaks. Others who spoke up or talked back occasionally made the news. None of this made the secretary of state an easier fellow to get along with. But time would pass, and things would return to normal. Never, though, do I recall assembled notes of those meetings being handed to the press.

All sorts of government documents have been and--count on it--will continue to be given surreptitiously to the press. Becoming a habit doesn't make it less dishonorable. I am well aware of the Yalta papers, the Pentagon papers and other less-elevated papers from anonymous sources and their after- hours delivery.

I make an important distinction between the press's digging information out of the government and, while standing there, being handed from backstairs what in effect is stolen property. It is a distinction the preponderance of officials recognize and live by. It is shameful there are a few who don't. It is a fine point that too often is lost in the public rush to cheer or denounce the subject of publication, while ignoring a principle.

In this case, the many letter writers condemned The Post for "irresponsibility." A few, one a Foreign Service Officer, denounced the leaker. Yet, the odds against identifying the source are high. Many saw the story creating diplomatic difficulties for the administration. None that I remember questioned the source's motive.

These notes did not come "over the transom." They were handed to a reporter who was known to be interested in a doing a profile piece on Secretary Haig. The notes were offered on condition that the source remain anonymous and with the full realization they would form the basis of a published story. Whether the source's motive was benign or mischievous is unclear. This is important because, if it were known, the reporter had an obligation to share it with the reader. Absent it, the reader is cheated.

Calling it unfit to print, some critics said they saw no news value in the article. It may be lean with news of policy, but it is not without other news: that the atmosphere in Egypt is "180 degrees" different since Mr. Sadat's death; that once Israel returns the remainder of the Sinai to Egypt in April, Egypt "will go back to the Arab world, with the United States isolated as Israel's sole defender." Nor is it insignificant to hear Mr. Haig say about Poland last May: "Dust off the Polish contingency with an eye to linkage with Lebanon. The U.S.S.R. might manufacture a Lebanon crisis to cover a Polish move."

There is, however, a dollop of "penny dreadful," as one writer said. No one is further enlightened by talk of old contretemps with the White House staff. And the piece would have demonstrated better taste if the epithet about British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington--"a duplicitous bastard"--had been deleted.

Not using the story was evidently never a serious question. Giving his reason for publication, executive editor Benjamin C. Bradlee said: "Anything that shows the thinking process of the man in this powerful position, as this story does, merits publication." At Mr. Bradlee's direction, one topic bearing on national security was deleted.

Is it too much to expect a newspaper not to print material like this? It is. I am persuaded that no other publication would ignore it, and it is a sham to pretend otherwise. The best evidence is that The Post story was carried intact by other dailies and rewritten in part by another. Stories drawn from it were run in the news magazines.

The critics are right in saying that something reprehensible occurred here. Yet, fairness requires that if damnations are in order, they not be misplaced. The villain of this piece is somewhere in the State Department.