The White House yesterday asked the Justice Department to investigate the leak of a classified State Department memo detailing a recent conversation between President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Clinton was "concerned" by a report in yesterday's Washington Times based on a memo written by Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, according to White House press secretary Michael McCurry. It recounted talks between Clinton and Yeltsin earlier this month when both leaders attended an anti-terrorism summit in Egypt.

National security adviser Anthony Lake instructed an aide to call the Justice Department to encourage the FBI to investigate an apparent "violation of federal law," the spokesman said.

At a news briefing yesterday, McCurry said "the Washington Times appears to be illegally in possession of a classified document," but in a later interview he said that comment had been "inartful." The White House believes the illegality was committed by someone in the government who leaked the information, not by the newspaper in taking the document or publishing it, McCurry explained.

Asked for comment on the investigation yesterday, Times editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden said, "I always wish the FBI well in whatever endeavors they undertake."

McCurry said Clinton and Lake considered the leak to be far more sensitive than the typical anonymous disclosure that is commonplace in Washington journalism. "The president feels like he ought to be able to sit down with the president of Russia and have a private conversation," McCurry said.

State Department officials said that the Talbott memorandum was circulated fairly widely within the administration, and would have been seen by senior officials in other government departments, in addition to the State Department.

The memo, as quoted in the Times, said Clinton pledged to work with Yeltsin to maintain "positive" relations with the United States as both men seek reelection this year. One way to do this, the memo quoted Clinton as saying, is for Yeltsin to stop restricting poultry imports. Clinton said "this is a big issue, especially since 40 percent of U.S. poultry is produced in Arkansas," the memo said.

Lake, according to White House and Justice Department officials, instructed the National Security Council lawyer yesterday to initiate a criminal investigation. Justice officials said yesterday that they had not yet turned the matter over to the FBI but expected to do so soon.

McCurry said administration officials have been concerned about other disclosures published in the Times under reporter Bill Gertz's byline, and hinted that law enforcement officers earlier had been called in to track down his sources.

Lake, he said, wanted the FBI to "add this to any ongoing inquiry that they have going."

Gertz, a national security reporter, in recent months has written other articles based on classified documents concerning arms control and missile defense.

The White House has brought on troubles for itself by encouraging the FBI to launch investigations. When White House travel office staff members were fired in 1993, administration officials called in the FBI to investigate the employees. Congressional critics said that was an attempt by the White House to use the agency for political ends. Staff writers Michael Dobbs and Pierre Thomas contributed to this report. CAPTION: PRESIDENT CLINTON