Debategate, a controversy that has been running hot and cold for more than a year, heated up again this week with the release of a congressional report that points an accusing finger at Central Intelligence Agency chief William J. Casey.
Republicans on Capitol Hill met the 2,400-page report on former President Carter's debate briefing papers obtained by the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1980 with ridicule and a chorus of charges that it produces no hard evidence of criminal wrongdoing or new information. ''It's a lot of smoke and political fanfare in an election year,'' said Rep. Robert H. Michel of Illinois, the House GOP leader.
In fact, the issue of ''Debategate'' has been largely played down by the Democratic leadership, including House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts. A little-known representative, Donald J. Albosta (D) of Michigan , took up the issue a year ago from his chairmanship of a little-noticed Post Office and Civil Service subcommittee with little urging from top party members.
With the release of the Albosta results Wednesday, however, Mr. O'Neill seems to have warmed somewhat to the effort, declaring that he was ''happy'' that the report did not implicate the President.
O'Neill joined the Albosta subcommittee in calling on the President to appoint a special counsel to investigate the 1980 campaign issue.
The report puts the ''onus'' on Mr. Casey, said the Speaker, of charges that Casey was less than candid when asked if he obtained the Carter papers.
His Republican counterpart, Representative Michel, vigorously defended the CIA director, who served as Reagan-Bush campaign director in 1980.
After its year-long investigation, the Albosta committee found ''the better evidence indicates'' that the Carter briefing book, written to prepare him for a Oct. 28, 1980, debate with then-candidate Ronald Reagan, ''entered the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign through campaign director Casey.'' The report also holds that Casey gave the book to James A. Baker III, now White House chief of staff, as testified by Mr. Baker.
The report questioned Casey's statement on the issue, and it also challenged the Department of Justice finding that conflicts in the Baker and Casey statements ''could be explained by differences in recollection or interpretation.''
Republican members of the Albosta panel, who bitterly flayed the investigation for excluding the minority members and for sloppiness and excessive expense, said the Casey charge was made ''without benefit of any solid evidence.''
''Casey's involvement, which was covered extensively by the press, is still denied by him,'' said the Republicans in a minority view of the report. ''If the subcommittee had found any evidence implicating Mr. Casey, the obvious conclusion in the report would be to recommend prosecution.''
Rep. Daniel Crane of Illinois, ranking Republican on the Albosta subcommittee , wrote off the report as ''innundated with inaccuracies, accusations, innuendo, and extraneous material.''
The real culprit, Republicans charged, was the ''mole'' within the Carter White House who handed the documents to the Reagan-Bush camp and who is left unnamed in the report.
The Albosta report is but the latest in ''Debategate'' developments, which include a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe (labeled ''conscientious'' by the congressional report) and a decision by the Department of Justice not to hire a special prosecutor in the case.
A lawsuit now awaiting action in federal appeals court charges that the Reagan administration erred when it failed to appoint the independent prosecutor.
The Albosta report technically is an probe to determine if federal ethics laws for federal employees are enforced and if they should be changed.
But the question on Capitol Hill is the political effect of more charges of wrongdoing against a Reagan official. Minority leader Michel said he saw none. ''The people out there in the country don't give two hoots. They could care less about who gave what to whom four years ago.''