"There really has been communist involvement in El Salvador, but by overstatting our case, we put the very premise of it in question." The words are those of Robert White, former United States ambassador to El Salvador, commenting on the growing controversy over the State Department White Paper on the communist role in the Salvadoran civil war.
Although there were questions about the accuracy of the report from the moment of its issuance Feb. 23, specific points of contention have only arisen in recent weeks with publication of newspaper articles openly challenging the report and its conclusions.
The US paper claimed "definitive evidence" that the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other communist lands were supplying leftist guerrillas in El Salvador with weapons, ammunition, and training, but it did not support its contention with such evidence.
Evidence, however, was contained in documents which were neither a part of the White Paper nor officially released. But those documents were subsequently widely circulated.
Critics now say the evidence, much of it in captured guerrilla documents, does not corroborate the paper's conclusions:
* Some of the documents were attributed to guerrilla leaders who did not write them. There is no indication of who really wrote them.
* Statistics on the size of armament shipments were extrapolated from some of the documents -- and may well overstate the actual amount of arms and ammunition sent to the guerrillas.
Both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have carried extensive articles on the issue this month, concluding that the White Paper is at best flawed, if not a major distortion of the truth. (The current issue of the columbia Journalism Review does likewise.)
These newspaper argue simply that the US overstated its case.
That is what worries former Ambassador White. Since his dismissal by the Reagan administration in January, he has spoken out frequently on Salvadoran issues.
Neither he nor the newpapers, however, argue that shortcomings in the white Paper necessarily invalidate the administration's argument about Soviet and Cuba support for the Salvadoran guerrillas. But they do suggest the White Paper's shortcomings damage US credibility.
Likewise, the newspapers say that the White Paper's contention that the Salvadoran situation in February was desperate simply was not borne out by what was taking place in El Salvador at that time. The guerrilla's January offensive fizzled and the Salvadoran Army, while occasionally losing battles with the guerrillas, has control of more of the country today than it did in early 1981.
The State Department, however, counters these critical points by claiming that the newspaper articles contain "inaccuracies" and that they make much ado about issues which the department argues "don't have any bearing on the conclusions of the report."
Yet the Wall Street Journal article quotes State Department political officer Jon D. Glassman, regarded as responsible for the White Paper, as saying that parts of it may be "misleading" and "overembellished." Mr. Glassman now refuses to speak to the press.
The State Department meanwhile, has issued a detailed rebuttal of the criticism. It admits a "few poinst of misstated detail or ambiguous formulations," but concludes that the paper emerges untarnished.
Both newspaper stories state that there is no concrete support of the contention that nearly 200 tons of weapons had been delivered to El Salvador's guerrillas.
The State Department replies that a captured guerrilla document mentions that on Nov. 1, 1980, there were 109 tons of arms awaiting shipment in Nicaragua.
Critics of the report say there is no absolute proof the captured guerrilla documents are authentic. Moreover, they argue it was poor intelligence technique to base the 200-ton figure on one document.
But the State Department says its 200-ton figure is based on more than one document.