THE other day Sen. David F. Durenberger (R) of Minnesota, chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, discussed at some length the Central Intelligence Agency and its director, William J. Casey, with a group of reporters over lunch. The next morning the Washington Post's Page 1 headline read: ``CIA, Casey Criticized by Hill Chairman.'' And the lead paragraph said that Mr. Durenberger criticized Mr. Casey ``for lacking a `sense of direction' and particularly for failure to understand the Soviet Union.''
Yet Durenberger and several of the reporters who attended that luncheon thought that the Post's caption beneath the senator's picture on Page 3, where the article was continued, caught his basic view of Casey. It read, ``[Durenberger] defends Casey as `Professional'.''
These reporters all thought that Durenberger's criticism of and reservations about Casey came within a context of an overall appreciation of Casey and the job he was doing. They said they believed that a positive lead (and headline), reflecting Durenberger's defense of Casey, would have accurately mirrored the thrust of the senator's comments on the intelligence director.
The Post's story set off an explosion, at least in the pages of that influential newspaper. Casey, responding to the story, fired off a public letter, asking at one point, ``What are [CIA officers around the world] to think when the chairman of the Senate Select Committee offhandedly, publicly, and inaccurately disparages their work?''
Casey might have held his fire if he had been aware of this response by Durenberger at the luncheon to the question ``Do you have any doubts about the leadership of the CIA?''
``Not yet,'' he said. ``I think Bill is as good a DCI [director of central intelligence] as we have had in a long time. That forgives a whole lot of things by saying that.
[Chuckling.] ``And you would have an 8-to-7 vote on the committee if I put it to a vote.'' Continuing:
``Bill's problems are still more style and perception than they are substance. I think as a substantive professional politician he is just a darn good guy in that job. When he gets them into trouble by, say, shutting down information to the Congress or something like that, it's because they can't be trusted.
``There is a professionalism in Bill. He knows the craft. He knows something of the politics involved in it. He knows about the relationship between information and intelligence and between intelligence and public policy.''
Later on in the lunch, Durenberger said he would give Casey a plus for his job performance. Then he expressed this reservation: ``One of the things we [the committee] will be sorting out is whether . . . [national-security adviser Robert] McFarlane shouldn't be the President's right hand on the intelligence input into policy and Casey ought to be the pro who runs the organization.''
The next day the Post ran a Page 1 article in which Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he believed that Casey wanted to go back to the days when there was no congressional oversight of CIA covert operations.
And the day after, the Post on its Sunday Op-Ed page printed, side by side, the Casey letter and a responding letter from Durenberger in which the senator defended congressional oversight and public discussion of the CIA. What developed here was a yelling contest between Durenberger and Casey that probably would not have occurred if Casey had heard the carefully and quietly uttered Durenberger assessment of him at the lunch.
The Post's ombudsman, Sam Zagoria, followed up a few days later with his own carefully researched appraisal of these stories and public exchanges in his column on his newspaper's opinion page.
``[The Post's] report could be supported by snips and snaps in the transcript,'' he wrote, ``but Senator Durenberger's string of compliments for Mr. Casey and the vagueness of his suggestions for possible change by the end of 1986 should have discouraged treating the story so one-sidedly.''
``Leads and headlines have a tendency to simplify and polarize positions,'' Mr. Zagoria added, ``and this happened here. The result has been a four-day battle in the Post, and I doubt that it was intended by the three public officials. What started out as a low-key discussion about relationships between a key Senator and an agency escalated into a shouting match and some of the most surprised were the Senator and some of his auditors.''
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.