The Justice Department, in a secret ruling this summer, found that federal agents have authority to seize fugitives in foreign countries without obtaining the consent of the country involved, but the White House and State Departments quickly distanced themselves from the legal opinion after it was revealed yesterday. The June 21 opinion by the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, which could apply to efforts to apprehend fugitives such as Panamanian Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, reversed a 1980 decision by that office that such seizures would violate international law. The text of the opinion, whose existence was first reported by the Los Angeles Times, remained secret yesterday. But Justice Department spokesman David Runkel confirmed that the ruling concluded that the president "does have the authority, should he decide to use it," to authorize FBI agents to seize fugitives abroad without obtaining foreign consent. Runkel said the opinion was prepared at the request of the Federal Bureau of Investigation but did not focus on any particular proposed operation. The FBI, which has in the last several years been given new authority to investigate crimes abroad such as hijacking and hostage-taking, said in a statement that "to date no action has been taken as a direct result of this advice." Disclosure of the ruling caught the administration off guard yesterday. Questioned about it at a morning news conference, President Bush said, "I'm embarrassed to say I don't know what it is." At the State Department, spokesman Margaret Tutwiler said Secretary of State James A. Baker III "to be perfectly honest with you, just learned of this this morning." Later in the day, both the White House and the State Department emphasized that the Justice ruling did not necessarily mean the administration intended to engage in such action and that it would only do so after an inter-agency review and approval by the president. "It is important to isolate the question of whether domestic legal authority exists from the separate question of whether the president will, in fact, authorize the use of that authority," the White House said in a statement. "In any given case, the president must weigh his constitutional responsibilities for formulating and implementing both foreign policy and law enforcement policy." Baker described the policy change as "a very narrow legal opinion," adding, "It did not take into consideration, as I understand it, international law nor the president's constitutional responsibility to conduct the foreign policy of the United States." The opinion is entitled "Authority of the FBI to Override Customary or Other International Law in the Course of Extraterritorial Law Enforcement Activities." Justice spokesman Runkel said the State Department and others "throughout the government with an interest . . . were notified and consulted before the opinion was made final." But an aide to State Department legal adviser Abraham D. Sofaer said the opinion "was written and approved by attorneys in the Department of Justice without involvement of State Department personnel." In testimony before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in 1985, Sofaer warned that "seizure by U.S. agents of terrorist suspects abroad might constitute a serious breach of the territorial sovereignty of a foreign state and could violate local kidnapping laws." Sofaer asked, "How would we feel if some foreign nation . . . came over here and seized some terrorist suspect . . . because we refused . . . to extradite that individual?" The earlier Office of Legal Counsel opinion, prepared in response to an FBI proposal to seize fugitive financier Robert L. Vesco, concluded that "U.S. agents have no law enforcement authority in another nation unless it is the product of that nation's consent," and that arrests by U.S. agents without foreign approval are "regarded as an impermissible invasion of the territorial integrity of another state." It warned that agents who make such overseas arrests may face extradition to the foreign country on kidnapping charges. A number of international law experts yesterday expressed disagreement with the change in policy. "Without local consent, I don't see that it's any different from sending an army across the border. It counts as an invasion," said Edward M. Wise of Wayne State University, author of a casebook on international criminal law. "I don't think there's anything that is a more clear violation of that country's territorial sovereignty and international law." Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) said the opinion "makes us an international ruffian. If we do it, that means Moscow could authorize the KGB to arrest somebody in our country." But former prosecutors welcomed the added power as a necessary tool to combat international terrorism and drug trafficking. "From a policy matter, I think it's an option that absolutely should be there, since we have so many countries that are not cooperating in extraditing known charged terrorists," said former deputy assistant attorney general Victoria Toensing. "You absolutely do not want to go around invading other countries, . . . but where you have states shielding known criminals . . . you should have more options available to you than to do nothing, which is about what you've got today," she said. Staff writers Ann Devroy and David B. Ottaway contributed to this report.