Brig. Gen. Richard F. Abel, director of public information for the Air Force, said yesterday that a controversial article in The Washington Post about the mission of the next space shuttle shot contained little or no information that was not on the public record, according to several people who heard him speak.
Abel made his comments before a journalism class at the University of Georgia in Athens, according to two professors and a student who attended. His remarks appeared to conflict with the thrust of an earlier statement by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who said that The Post's story was "the height of journalistic irresponsibility" and may have given "aid and comfort to the enemy."
"He basically said, 'I could have put a story together from those public sources,' " said Conrad Fink, a journalism professor at the university and a former executive of The Associated Press. "He referenced congressional testimony, public hearings, other publications like Aviation Week."
"He tended to play down the factual importance of the story," Fink added.
Abel, who last month held a news conference to ask news organizations not to discuss the first military shuttle payload, said last night that he had told the class he could not comment on whether the newspaper story was useful to the Soviet Union.
"I said I can't comment on the value, but there's material written in sources and public testimony to put together a story," he said. "It came from congressional writings and other writings, and possibly the Soviets have some of that; they follow what we do and write."
Matthew J. Kempner, a 20-year-old journalism major who said he took notes during Abel's remarks, said that the general said that everything in The Post story was "stuff that the public could have gotten, in the public domain."
But Abel said that he had said only that "some" of the information in the Post story came from published sources and that he could not comment on which parts of the story were accurate.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration will launch the first shuttle dedicated entirely to military missions later this month. The Post reported that during its flight the shuttle will launch an intelligence satellite that will be stationed to "eavesdrop" on electronic signals emanating from the Soviet Union.
Several publications that had learned about the cargo earlier had agreed not to publish or broadcast any information after pleas from Weinberger and other top officials, who said any information about the launch could help the Soviets and reduce the value of the satellite. On Dec. 17, Abel told a news conference that almost no information about the shuttle would be released and that any leaks about it would be investigated.
The Post published its story on Dec. 19, prompting Weinberger's criticism the next day. Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of the newspaper, said that Weinberger's reaction was "not justified" because most of the information in the front-page report was already public.
Abel told the journalism class that he did not see the value of publishing a story.
He speculated that The Post "was probably upset that it was behind" on the story and upset that it "hadn't been called by Weinberger," Fink said.
Abel, reached at his home last night, said he thought it also was improper to report remarks he made in an academic forum.
"I thought it was an academic class and I was trying to talk people through press relations," he said. "We talked just about a broad spectrum of public affairs."