The White House yesterday privately rebuked Richard Burt, U.S. ambassador to West Germany, for saying in a television interview that the United States has "clear indications" of Libya's involvement in the weekend bombing of a West Berlin nightclub.
U.S. officials confirmed, however, that Burt's statements were correct.
According to the officials, Burt was admonished on orders from national security affairs adviser John M. Poindexter because the administration does not want to assign blame publicly for the bombing, which killed an American soldier, until it has time to present such evidence to European governments in a new attempt to induce them to take steps against Libya.
The officials, who declined to be identified, said Burt had been warned to be more circumspect in public statements, not because he had spoken incorrectly but because, as one official put it, "he got too far out in front of what the administration wants to say publicly at this point."
In particular, the officials said, the administration fears that statements such as those Burt made on NBC's "Today" show could adversely affect U.S. hopes of persuading West Germany to restrict Libyans' movement from East Berlin and possibly take other actions such as expelling some Libyan nationals or closing Libyan diplomatic offices.
If West Germany does act, the officials said, it could be an important spur for other U.S. allies in Europe to heed a new appeal for concerted moves against Libya's ability to support international terrorism.
In contrast to earlier U.S. calls for economic sanctions against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, the appeal yesterday focused on political steps such as closing the so-called People's Bureaus maintained by Libya in major European capitals. State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said:
"Where there are indications or reasons to believe the local Libyan People's Bureaus are involved . . . in actual or potential terrorist activities, it is certainly to the advantage of the host country . . . to take action . . . . "
The officials said messages were sent yesterday to U.S. embassies in Europe and other major nations, instructing them to tell host governments that Washington believes that Libya masterminded the Berlin bombing from the People's Bureau in East Berlin.
However, the officials added, the United States is greatly concerned that, if this information is made public before being presented quietly through diplomatic channels, European governments may believe that they are being subjected to U.S. pressure and react negatively.
For that reason, the officials said, the administration wants to avoid public charges until it has gathered more intelligence evidence and made it available to the allies in private.
The public U.S. position, stated yesterday by White House spokesman Edward P. Djerejian, is that the administration "would have to reserve final judgment on exactly who was responsible until we make further progress on the investigations."
Kalb said only that the Berlin bombing "fits the pattern of increased Libyan activities."
Privately, however, U.S. officials said they believe that they have evidence, based partly on intercepted messages, that ties Libya to the bombing so strongly that at least some European governments might overcome reluctance to move against Libya.
The officials said that, while it is too early to predict the European reaction, the United States has seen tentative signs of "heightened European awareness of the problem." They cited the increasing danger posed by terrorism to European lives and property and the havoc it threatens to cause in the tourist industry there.
U.S. officials said other recent terrorist actions also fit the pattern of Libyan-sponsored activity. They cited a rocket explosion late Saturday near the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and another the same day in an abandoned building in Khartoum, Sudan, formerly used by U.S. Embassy guards.
Pentagon officials said the U.S. Navy battle groups that recently engaged Libyan forces in the Gulf of Sidra have dispersed.
They said the carrier USS Saratoga is in the Atlantic en route to its home port of Mayport, Fla., the carrier USS Coral Sea is in the Spanish port of Malaga and the carrier USS America is in the Italian port of Livorno.