The Reagan administration spoke with many voices yesterday about the new, or not new, policy on terrorism that Secretary of State George P. Shultz enunciated for the government, or for himself, in a major address Thursday night.
Shultz declared that "we must be willing to use military force" to combat international terrorism. "The public must understand before the fact [emphasis in the speech] that there is potential for loss of life of some of our fighting men and the loss of life of some innocent people," he said.
Under heavy questioning yesterday, State Department spokesman John Hughes told reporters that Shultz's speech had been cleared at the White House and that Shultz "certainly was voicing an administration position" in his address. Vice President Bush, however, took a different view. "I don't agree with that," Bush said in an early morning television interview in Cincinnati after being told that Shultz asked for a national consensus of "active prevention, preemption and retaliation to . . . deter future terrorist acts" and said the public should be ready for loss of lives of innocent people and American soldiers.
"I think you've got to pinpoint the response to terrorism , and we're not going to go out and bomb innocent civilians or something of that nature," Bush said. Later in the day, Bush said there was no unanimity in the Cabinet on how to respond to "terrorism generally," but he would not elaborate about the differences.
As far as he knew, Bush said, the administration's policy was stated by President Reagan in last Sunday's foreign-policy debate with Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale.
On that occasion, Reagan said, "In dealing with terrorists, yes, we want to retaliate, but only if we can put our finger on the people responsible and not endanger the lives of innocent civilians."
Yesterday, during a campaign swing through the northeast, Reagan declined to comment on differences between Shultz and Bush. The president said of Shultz's speech, "I don't think it was a statement of policy. He was saying all these things must be considered."
Reagan said, "I think what Secretary Shultz was saying was that you couldn't rule out the possibility of innocent people being killed. He was not saying that we would do that."
Within 30 minutes after Reagan's remarks, White House spokesman Larry Speakes tracked down reporters and issued a clarification.
"Shultz's speech was administration policy from top to bottom," Speakes said. "Shultz was saying that, in isolated cases, innocent civilians may be killed in a retaliatory strike. I emphasize may be, not will be."
The lack of consensus about terrorism and Shultz's pronouncements were evident even in the audience at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City where Shultz made his address Thursday night. Immediately afterward, Shultz was confronted with statements of skepticism in the question-and-answer period, according to a transcript released yesterday by the State Department.
One questioner, noting that Shultz seemed much less reticent about retaliation and killing innocent civilians than Reagan had been in the Sunday debate, asked if Shultz had discussed "this proposal" with Reagan and whether any contradition with administration policy was involved.
"No," Shultz replied. "What I have said is completely consistent with what the president said in the debate."
Shultz added that he had given much emphasis to the importance of improving U.S. intelligence "so if we are to preempt something, we have to have the intelligence to know what is being planned and where."
Shultz said in his speech that "we must reach a consensus in this country that our responses to terrorism should go beyond passive defense to consider means of active prevention, preemption and retaliation."
At another point, he said, "We will need the capability to act on a moment's notice. There will not be time for a renewed national debate after every terrorist attack. We may never have the kind of evidence that can stand up in an American court of law. But we cannot allow ourselves to become the Hamlet of nations, worrying endlessly over whether or how to respond."
Spokesman Hughes declined to say what Shultz or the administration would accept as evidence of the public "consensus" that the United States could take preemptive military action abroad against foreign civilians suspected of plotting acts of terrorism, with possible loss of innocent life.
He would not say what role, if any, is envisaged for Congress in such a decision or what authority of law the administration could use to justify such actions.
A White House official said the Shultz speech did not reflect any new policy decision by the president or executive branch. The last major directive on this subject, he said, was National Security Decision Directive 138, issued last April 3.
Some news reports characterized that directive as endorsing "the principle" of preemptive strikes and retaliatory raids against terrorists abroad.
A White House statement April 17 did not go that far but said that, when all other efforts fail, "it must be understood that when we are victimized by acts of terrorism we have the right to defend ourselves -- and the right to help others do the same."