Make no mistake. Charles Wick hasn't gone soft on the Soviets. A conversation with the affable director of the United States Information Agency (USIA) is punctuated with all the disclaimers about Soviet behavior one would expect from a top official of the Reagan administration, known for its hawkish views toward Moscow. But when he talks about his most recent visit to the Soviet Union, from which he has just returned, the nation's chief publicist abroad betrays a good deal of uncharacteristic optimism.
Sitting in his sunny Washington office, Mr. Wick says Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost could lead to the removal of some serious irritants in superpower relations.
Wick's 9,000-person agency tells America's story overseas through several agencies, including the Voice of America (VOA) and various exchange and speakers programs. He met with 15 high-level Soviet officials when he went to Moscow early this month to open an American computer technology exhibit.
With only one exception, says this closest American equivalent of an information minister, ``I found them unfailingly eager to demonstrate a desire to cooperate with us ... and to lessen tensions - to avoid if possible the obvious irritants that result from illogical disinformation.''
The exception was Valentin Falin, chief editor of the Novosti press features sydicate. A brief, stormy session with Mr. Falin was cut short by Wick after Falin refused to apologize for a recent Soviet article charging that CIA agents, working with South African specialists, had developed a lethal gas capable of killing blacks without harming whites.
Wick says it is difficult to calibrate how much damage disinformation like the ``ethnic'' weapon article, which also appeared in several African newspapers, could do to US interests in black Africa.
But as with all disinformation, he says, it is the repetition that creates perceptions that then harden into damaging assessments. His meeting with Falin, whom he describes as ``intemperate, nonresponsive and polemical,'' shows ``that there are important people in the [Soviet] hierarchy that don't agree on glasnost,'' Wick says. But in general, he says, Soviet leaders now appear interested in curbing disinformation and in broadening bilateral contacts between the superpowers.
Among recent positive signs he cited:
Last May the USSR stopped jamming most Voice of America broadcasts. The Soviets, who until recently spent more money jamming VOA than the US spent running it, continue to interfere with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty broadcasts to East Europe and the Soviet Union. The two countries are discussing ways to promote access to each other's airwaves.
Moscow has agreed to allow a team of US psychiatrists to inspect mental hospitals where political dissidents are said to be tortured.
Soviet officials have agreed to consider expanding exchange programs to include more scientists and to open the Soviet Union to more US books and films. USIA is also pushing for greater access to Soviet television by US officials and experts.
In addition, the two sides have discussed the possibility of holding periodic meetings between US and Soviet journalists to air charges of disinformation. Wick says the Soviets may also respond to US appeals to take steps to resolve a dozen cases involving divided families.
Such ``markers,'' says the former California businessman, ``are not meant to indicate that all of a sudden their whole philosophy has changed and they're doing an about-face.''
But they point to a ``sincerity of purpose in easing tensions with the US,'' says Wick.
Asked to assess the significance of such gestures in light of the continuing competition between the superpowers in nuclear weapons and third-world influence, Wick says they may be significant as possible harbingers of warmer relations.
``I think [they] amount to a great deal in throwing a light as to the direction of the path [of US-Soviet relations],'' he says.