Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger's criticism of The Washington Post yesterday about its report on next month's planned military shuttle mission is the latest of several disagreements between the Reagan administration and the news media about national security and the public's right to know.
In general, news executives yesterday defended The Post's right to publish its report on the intelligence satellite to be orbited from the shuttle. They said much data about the mission was already public and easily available to Soviet agents.
Richard D. Smyser, editor of The Oak Ridger in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said:
"This is so often a farce, this suggestion of military secrets . . . . It's hard to convince me that if the information was available to reporters . . . that it could not also be in the hands of anyone that would want to misuse it. The only significant group that did not have the information was the American public."
"Frequently, these things are leaked deliberately by officials for their own purposes," Smyser said, although he questioned why reporters sometimes allow themselves to be used by officials trying to plant information for their own purposes or to test public reaction to it.
"We're part of this system of leaks, and that leaves the public cynical and confused," he said.
Jack Landau, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, characterized Weinberger's criticism of The Post as an "irresponsible attack."
Although presidents have frequently complained about leaks to reporters of what they termed sensitive information, the Reagan administration has been particularly critical of leaks and wary of dealing with news organizations.
Among administration actions that have affected the media:
For the first time in a major American military operation, U.S. reporters were barred from initial phases of the invasion of Grenada 14 months ago, and all reports about the operation were released by the Defense Department.
The administration has supported legislation, most of it unsuccessful, to restrict the Freedom of Information Act, which requires federal agencies to provide copies of most government documents to reporters and private citizens who request them.
Among information exempted from the act would be classified information, private personnel records and most of the contents of investigative files kept by such agencies as the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
In March 1983, President Reagan signed a controversial national-security directive to increase use of polygraph tests in leak investigations and impose lifetime censorship on government employes with access to classified information.
Last February, after pressure from Congress and key White House aides, Reagan suspended part of the directive, including the provision for polygraph tests.
Reagan has tried repeatedly to limit contacts between the administration and reporters. Early last year, saying, "I've had it up to my keister" with leaks, he ordered White House officials to tighten control of administration contact with reporters.
The administration has conducted many leak investigations, including some involving its highest-ranking officials. Last year, Secretary of State George P. Shultz threatened to resign rather than take a polygraph test in an investigation of a leak about U.S. military strategy in Lebanon.
Reagan has held only 28 formal news conferences during his first term of office, compared with 59 by Jimmy Carter.
Landau said the administration "attitude toward government information and leaks is worse by far than anything since the voluntary censorship at the end of World War II.
"They have a very definite philosophical approach . . . different from any other administration. They have the concept that they own government information and that it's theirs," he said.
Jerry Berman of the American Civil Liberties Union said he believes that the administration "has a penchant for secrecy . . . because it appears to any citizen to be the most leak-filled administration we've ever had."
Mark Lynch, another ACLU lawyer, said that, as much as leaks may distress the administration, not much can be done to those who use such information.
"Anything in the public domain" is not covered by espionage restrictions, "and the First Amendment protects anything that the government lets get into the hands of reporters," he said.
In criticizing The Post, Weinberger noted that he had called the Associated Press and the three major television networks to request that they not use information given them about the shuttle mission because it would affect national security.
Richard Wald, a senior vice president of ABC News, said yesterday that ABC is "in a very odd position" because it had not been working on such a report, had received no information on it from Defense Department sources and had not been asked to withhold a report.
Smyser criticized Defense Department efforts to quash reports about the shuttle flight, saying that, because so many news organizations had information about the military satellite, "It's a little far-fetched to think this is a military secret."
Thomas Winship, editor of The Boston Globe and a former ASNE president, said, "I can't remember a case when the press has sat on a government story when they haven't regretted it. Unless we have the most compelling reason, we almost always print a properly sourced story when we get it.
"It's hard to visualize us the press printing information our enemies can't find out. If we have obtained the information , they probably have. I'm not going to defend the Reagan administration perception of what should and should not be printed," he said.
Stewart Pinkerton, assistant managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, said that, although his newspaper is not involved in the controversy, he would make decisions on future stories on a case-by-case basis.
"Obviously, we're sensitive to issues of national security, but we're also sensitive to our right to publish what the public needs to know," he said.