White House national security adviser William P. Clark, angered because he had no advance knowledge of the State Department's ill-fated presentation of a captured Nicaraguan soldier to the American press, has ordered an interdepartmental group to make sure such debacles aren't repeated.
Clark sent a terse memo to Cabinet officials reminding them that such matters of public affairs and policy are to be coordinated through an interdepartmental management group and then submitted to the National Security Council for approval.
As a result of Clark's memo, the management group met Tuesday and, in what one participant called "a new spirit of prudence and caution," recommended that the United States undertake no further information campaigns until after the March 28 elections in El Salvador.
But the Reagan administration did announce yesterday that it was going ahead with a plan to create a radio network in the Caribbean to counter Soviet and Cuban propaganda. "We are involved in a war of ideas and of credibility," International Communication Agency Director Charles Z. Wick told the House international operations subcommittee. "Our adversary is the Soviet Union and our weapon is the truth."
The management group on Latin American policy, chaired by Thomas O. Enders, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, met Tuesday to discuss what steps the United States should take in the wake of the State Department press conference.
That session backfired when the captured 19-year-old Nicaraguan soldier, whom the administration was counting on to back claims of Cuban and Nicaraguan intervention in El Salvador, instead recanted his earlier confessions made in El Salvador, said they had been forced from him by torture and death threats, and denounced the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government.
"Our subject was, what do we do now after the 'fiasco'--and that is the only thing you can call it," said one official who attended the meeting. "And what came out of it was that the best thing we can do now is to leave this thing alone until after the election" in El Salvador March 28.
For weeks, the administration had been considering the advisability of making public what officials say is convincing intelligence information showing the extent of Soviet and Cuban involvement in support of the guerrilla forces in El Salvador.
In two recent briefings, the administration sought to get public support for its policy positions. The first was a briefing for reporters at which intelligence officials showed aerial photos of "Soviet-style" training sites in Nicaragua. At the second briefing, for top policy advisers in past administrations, officials revealed much of the intelligence information they have yet to make public.
"Both of those briefings had White House approval," said one senior presidential adviser. "We think they went very well."
But last week's unusual session in which the captured Nicaraguan was presented to the press under the aegis of the State Department was something else. "It was a unilateral decision of State," said one White House official. "It was all done in a big hurry."
A couple of days before the Nicaraguan's Washington debut, White House communications director David R. Gergen attended a meeting at the State Department in which proposals for such public information efforts were discussed. The Nicaraguan soldier was not mentioned, administration officials say. Nor was the proposal considered by the management group, which consists of officials from the State, Defense, Treasury and Commerce departments, the Central Intelligence Agency, the NSC staff and the White House.
Just before the Nicaraguan was brought before reporters at the State Department, an official there mentioned to one of Gergen's assistants that something was in the works, but provided no further details, according to one White House official.
The first the White House knew of the proposal was from the media reports that followed the Nicaraguan soldier's recanting of his earlier confessions.
"There was much wringing of hands here when the news broke," said one White House official.