By emphasizing different aspects of the same policy, Reagan administration officials in the last few days have conveyed a confusing impression of sharp swings in the U.S. position on retaliating against terrorists.
In fact, officials said, the policy remains unchanged. A senior official described it as "appropriate response." It has been expressed on several occasions by President Reagan as an attempt to identify those responsible for acts of terrorism and retaliating without harming innocent civilians.
But in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports, this policy was blurred by administration statements that first urged restraint on Israel and then encouraged the Israelis to retaliate. Officials also warned that a U.S. military response was possible and pointedly accused Libya of supporting those terrorists responsible.
"Between the White House and the State Department we managed to give out two different stories when there was really none," said an administration official who works for neither.
The importance of the change in tone by the administration was underscored today in Israel, where Prime Minister Shimon Peres attacked Libya as a "wicked country" that harbored terrorists and said he welcomed the green light given by the United States to hit back at those responsible for the airport attacks. Peres also called for international sanctions against Libya, saying that otherwise "other people will become innocent victims." Details, Page A26.
In Washington today, Defense Department officials continued to review possible retaliatory targets in Libya with the idea of making a recommendation to Reagan later this week about the advisability of a bombing strike, according to Pentagon officials. But they stressed that no military action was imminent. The aircraft carrier Coral Sea has been allowed to remain in Naples and the carrier Saratoga, in the Indian Ocean, has not been ordered to steam toward Libya, they said.
Administration officials who reviewed the varying statements of the past few days acknowledged the change in emphasis, but denied there had been a change in policy. They also said the perception of change had been exaggerated by the media, which had given the story significant attention during the slow news period of the holidays.
"There has been a news vacuum and this one particle filled it," a senior White House official said today. "It's large in relation to everything else which is there, because there's not much else there."
Another official said that the seemingly conflicting accounts also reflected the difficulty of coordinating an administration position when Reagan is not in Washington. Reagan was briefed by written intelligence reports last Saturday on what his subordinates were saying, but did not discuss it with them until Sunday. He reportedly considered their remarks a reiteration of past policy statements.
Coordination in this instance was made more difficult because White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan arrived in California after the president and was not present when the first statements were issued and national security adviser John M. Poindexter was on vacation.
Here is a day-by-day account of the administration response:
Friday, Dec. 27 -- Reagan, arising in the White House residence to dress for his trip to California, was told of the attacks shortly before 7 a.m. in a phone call from the Situation Room. An hour later, Reagan was briefed by Don Fortier, the deputy national security affairs adviser, on what happened at the airports. On Air Force One en route to California, White House spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters: "We would certainly deplore and condemn the violence. This underscores the need for nations to work together to put an end to terrorism. We would hope that those that are responsible for this cowardly act would be apprehended and punished to the fullest extent."
In Washington, D.C., State Department spokesman Charles E. Redman read a statement calling on "all members of the world community to join us in combating forcefully these criminal acts and bringing to justice those responsible." The statement added, "There must be no place for terrorists to hide."
Saturday, Dec. 28 -- Reagan spent the day in his suite at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, but back in Washington, an interagency group meeting at the White House considered a full range of U.S. responses to the terrorist actions, in which five Americans were killed. Military responses are among those being considered, reporters in Washington were told.
In the meantime, Israel issued a bristling warning that it will retaliate. This worried senior officials at the White House, who remember the graphic pictures from Tunisia in early October after Israel responded to the murder of three Israelis in a yacht in a Cyprus harbor by bombing the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Tunisia and killing a number of civilians.
Speakes issued a call for restraint and a senior official told reporters in Los Angeles that other nations in the region have been asked to "lean heavily on Israel" to prevent indiscriminate retaliation.
State Department officials expressed puzzlement at the news from the California White House of U.S. messages to pressure Israel, saying they know of none. The only ones known to the State Department are "condolence" messages to Austria, Italy and Israel, the latter one having been released by Israeli authorities, and earlier messages to friendly governments asking them to join in condemnation of the terrorist acts at the United Nations and elsewhere.
White House officials expressed two concerns: that precipitate Israeli action would stifle the shaky Middle East peace process and that Israel would use the bombings as a pretext for wiping out Syrian surface-to-air missiles in Lebanon.
"Every effort is being made to temper the Israeli response," the senior White House official said. "Exercise of any of the military options open to Israel would certainly inhibit the peace process in the Middle East." But a senior State Department official gave a different emphasis, saying that "those who commit terrorism and support it must pay a price for it."
In Saturday evening newscasts and Sunday morning papers it is the White House statement on restraint that received the main emphasis.
Sunday, Dec. 29 -- Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Israel will make decisions on retaliation based on its own security considerations and blamed the runaway Abu Nidal faction of the PLO rather than the main body of the organization for the terrorism in Rome and Vienna. Though Rabin appeared to be spurning U.S. requests, his statement was greeted with relief by White House officials because the public blaming of Abu Nidal appeared to make bombing of PLO camps unlikely.
On the same program State Department antiterrorist expert Robert B. Oakley blamed Libya for supporting Abu Nidal, and this theme became a dominant one for the administration, which itself has contemplated anti-Libyan actions and would find Israeli actions in this direction more acceptable than against any other country in the region.
National Security Council and State Department officials in Washington, concerned about press stories and press inquiries about disarrray in administration statements, drew up an agreed statement of both the restraint and action aspects of U.S. policy. The statement said the United States urges "all states" to avoid taking actions that would "feed" a cycle of violence in the Middle East, while at the same time saying that "terrorism cannot go unanswered" and calling for responses to be "appropriate, measured and focused."
In California Reagan, who from the time he left the White House had been kept informed only through written intelligence papers, was briefed in his suite at Century Plaza by William Martin of the NSC, chief legislative strategist Dennis Thomas, White House counsel Fred F. Fielding and Speakes. The president reportedly reiterated his support of action directed against perpetrators but not civilians.
A source familiar with what the president said at this meeting described Reagan's reaction as favoring retaliation by either Israel or the United States if the perpetrators could be clearly identified. "He said, 'We ought to get them if we can, but let's not start World War III over it,' " the source said.
Monday, Dec. 30 -- At their respective briefings, Speakes and Redman focused their comments on Libya and Abu Nidal and pointedly declined to rule out military options.
"The United States policy is that if you can find terrorists, seek them out and hit those responsible for it, go at it, go to it," Speakes said. He also said it would be "fine with us" if Israel or other nations attack and "wipe out" those responsible for terrorism. These extemporaneous remarks by a White House spokesman went beyond the statements approved in interagency consultations and brought new dismay to some State Department officials who believe the remarks will be seen as a U.S. "green light" for Israeli actions that the United States cannot control.
Tuesday, Dec. 31 -- Despite the lack of a formal briefing, the White House sought to fine-tune administration statements of the day before.
"The United States is not undertaking a military operation against Libya," a senior White House official said.
Meanwhile, military officials studied retaliatory options on Libya, but confronted the same fundamental problems they faced when looking for a way to retaliate for the bombing of the Marines at the Beirut International Airport in 1983. Intelligence is skimpy on the whereabouts and bases of the terrorists responsible for the attack; striking targets in populated areas risks killing innocent civilians, and Americans in Libya would be in more danger after a retaliatory strike than before.
Said one official: "What's happened this week shows the difficulty we can have when we can't get people in the same room during a holiday period. And that difficulty is compounded when you folks have nothing else to write about."