Editorials such as "A Real Steal" (March 30) regarding the purchase of pliers from Boeing Aircraft Company cast an incomplete and inaccurate perspective on Department of Defense procurement. The public needs to know all the facts.

The editorial criticizes an Air Force procurement of pliers from Boeing. We agree that $1,500, or even $80, is too much to pay for a pair of pliers -- that's why we corrected the problem.

There was no attempt, as the editorial implies, to "pull the wool over anyone's eyes" by shifting costs from the pliers to a separate contract line item. In fact, a separate listing of management support and hardware costs has been initiated to help the Air Force better identify potential pricing abuses.

A more balanced editorial would have informed Post readers that while we were changing our policy that led to this exceptional problem with Boeing, we were buying over 3,500 of the same type of pliers for $3.10 each. Now Defense Department policy is to procure tools through the supply system or from the tool manufacturers directly if more specialized tools are required.

More balanced commentary also would have cited many of our current initiatives to control improper contractor overhead costs, including the contractor certification we recently instituted. And it would have commented that virtually every "horror story" has turned out to be an isolated, infrequent occurrence among our more than 15 million yearly purchases. Post readers should know that:

* While the Defense Department did buy a diode for $110, we also bought 122,429 for four cents each the same year and received a refund for the overpriced diode.

* While we bought a claw hammer for $435, we also bought 87,244 hammers of various types for $6 to $8 each the same year and received a refund for the overpriced hammers.

* In addition, we actually bought the $9,600 allen wrench -- the purchase was stopped as a result of our audit -- and we pay less than $10 apiece for toilet seats.

Procurement reform, especially in a system as large as the Defense Department, requires an ongoing process to achieve management improvement and increased efficiencies. Our auditors and others will continue to find an occasional problem. But I can assure you that we are making significant progress with the management reforms we have instituted since 1981, especially in the spare-parts area.

As I recently reported to Congress, last year over 100,000 items were broken out from the prime contractor for competition or for direct buys from the actual manufacturer. We estimate that these actions resulted in nearly $1.2 billion in cost savings and avoidances during the last fiscal year.

Our defense contractors know we are committed to our reform efforts. In cases where overpricing was identified, over 250 contractors have voluntarily refunded over $2.9 million. For those who did not honor their legal obligations, we have not hesitated to act: over 400 contractors were suspended or debarred during the past year alone.

We at the Defense Department are serious about getting the most defense from each defense dollar. We are determined to maintain a reputation for excellence in our defense stewardship. To that end, even one overpriced item is too many. But when overpricing is identified, you can be certain we will correct the problem, just as we did with the "real steal" pliers.

These individual "horror stories" must be put in perspective and should not be extrapolated to indict the entire defense acquisition process. The only "steal" here, unfortunately, is in withholding all the facts from the American public.