Attorney General Edwin Meese III has been criticized by the chairman of a House crime subcommittee because of Justice Department leaks to the news media about nationwide raids on illegal marijuana fields that began Monday.

In a letter dated Aug. 6, Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.) said he found it "almost incredible" that the department had held a news briefing on the planned raids the previous Friday.

The briefing was held on the condition that none of the information would be released before the raids began at 9 a.m. Monday. But news stories about the planned raids appeared before the briefing.

Meese, accompanied by reporters and photographers, planned to go with agents on a raid in rural northwestern Arkansas. But his plans were changed at the last minute because of heavy rains and flash-flood warnings. Instead, he saw the Arkansas operation by helicopter.

"I know of no precedent for such advance release of information regarding enforcement actions," Hughes said. "If there is precedent, it is probably bad precedent.

"The more opportunities we create for traffickers to learn of enforcement operations, the greater the risk to law-enforcement officers carrying out the operation," Hughes said, adding that advance notice of the raids probably led to early marijuana harvests over the weekend and to a decrease in the number of arrests.

"If the Department of Justice wants to ensure that its participation in the operation receives maximum coverage on the evening network news, there must be a better way of doing it," he said.

Justice Department spokesman Patrick Korten said yesterday that there has been no response to the Hughes letter. He said there was no problem with reporters breaking the embargo and added that the department was not responsible for earlier leaks.

"To suggest we would leak such a thing is crazy," he said.