Washington leaks: 'open that faucet a little wider'

As has happened at one time or another to most of its predecessors, the Reagan White House is in a tizzy about contacts of government officials with the media. It wants to be sure it knows who is seeing whom - and saying what.

A part of this is good old bureaucratic coordination. No president likes to be surprised when he casually tunes in ''Meet the Press'' and sees his secretary of state.

A bigger part is concern over unauthorized disclosure of classified information, though in truth this happens infrequently.

The biggest part is concern over leaks of information which has nothing to do with national security but everything to do with political embarrassment of the administration. Such information may well bear a national security classification; but if so, it is improperly classified. The files of several government agencies, State and Defense prominent among them, bulge with such improperly or overly classified documents.

The Reagan White House is moving along three tracks to tighten things up. In the first place, major television appearances or other interviews are to be cleared with the White House in advance. In the second place, consideration is being given to revising the standards for classifying and declassifying documents. In the third place, more rigorous investigations, possibly including the use of lie detectors, will be made to determine the source of leaks.

It is too bad that the thrust of the Reagan policy will produce more, not less, classified information. Aside from the fact that this will make it more difficult for the public to know what the government is doing, classified documents are more expensive to store and more cumbersome to work with. They are a fertile source of red tape and they have spawned their own bureaucracy of people in charge of protecting them and of investigating the people who have access to them.

Every administration goes through a spasm over leaks sooner or later. What set off the Reagan administration was a story that providing the forces the Joint Chiefs of Staff say they will need to carry out civilian defense policies would cost $750 billion more over five years than anybody had previously indicated. The story did not have very much to do with national security, but it had serious implications for the administration's budget policy and for the context in which that policy is discussed in Congress and the public. It called into question whether administration policies are, in fact, practicable and achievable. The administration naturally did not like this, just as the Johnson and Nixon administrations did not like bad news about Vietnam.

This incident and the resulting tempest (which may or may not be confined to a teapot) also reveal another characteristic of government which unfortunately is not unique to the Reagan administration. This is the propensity to resist public discussion of a problem until the executive branch has decided how to deal with it. Henry E. Catto Jr., the Defense Department spokesman who ought to know better, put it bluntly and clearly when he said:

''We feel that things ought to be decided in camera. . . . In most cases, it's not appropriate to have debate on national security issues in public.''

That's not a bad thumbnail description of the decisionmaking process in the Soviet Union, but things are supposed to be done differently in the United States. Otherwise, why do we maintain Congress at such great expense? Why, for that matter, do we bother to have elections? There was a public debate on national security issues preceding the last election which, incidentally, made it possible for Mr. Catto to return to public service.

It is, of course, more comfortable for any administration if it can thrash things out behind closed doors and present a tidy final policy to Congress and the public. But what is more comfortable for an administration is not necessarily better for the country, or for the administration itself, for that matter. No matter how logical or brilliant or even self-evident, a policy is viable only to the extent that it has broad public support. It is more likely to have that support if it results from extended public discussion, as inconvenient as such discussion may be for a president. The longest way round is indeed sometimes the surest way home.

Instead of trying to stifle public discussion, the administration ought to be trying to encourage it. If the administration won't do it openly, there will always be those who will find a way to do it through leaks. Open that faucet a little wider, please.

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