THE big question emerging from the Iran-contra hearings is this: How can the United States government keep a secret in a hostile world that still necessitates such secrecy? That's the final subject Secretary of State George Shultz addressed, in response to urging that he make recommendations for improvements. ``Leaks'' come from everywhere, from both Congress and the administration, Mr. Shultz said: ``We must do something about it.'' One answer would be in the sharing of an administration secret initiative with a much reduced number of congressional leaders - perhaps only a handful. Of course, Rear Adm. John Poindexter had his own answer: Not sharing the contra diversion secret with any in Congress - and leaving the President and several top administration officials out of the information loop, too!
It is arguable that since Watergate the ability of government to hold a secret - any secret - has become more and more difficult.
It can be argued, too, that it could be in the public interest that some secrets be leaked. In the early stages of the Vietnam war a top administration official was the source of a Monitor exclusive story, headlined ``Johnson may seek new Viet mandate.'' The article caused quite a stir, simply because it confirmed what a lot of people suspected.
At the same time the administration was denying, firmly, that it had any plans to go above the then commitment of US troops in Vietnam, about 180,000. The Monitor disclosure stated that ``the administration now is thinking of a Vietnam buildup that could well go beyond 350,000 or 400,000.''
Also, from this source, the Monitor was able to state that ``the administration is due to disclose, in much fuller details, the gravity of the situation in Vietnam.''
In addition, this reporter, the author of the article, was able in advance of publication to check out this information with other informed sources in the administration who reluctantly and confidentially told him that such a plan was indeed in existence.
As expected, the Johnson White House attempted to discredit the story, asserting vehemently that there was nothing to it. But the news media generally gave it credence. And the President and his people - including the original source of the ``leak'' - moved ahead with the plan, as the American people soon found out.
Did this disclosure of plans for a vast troop acceleration work against the public weal? It probably helped fuel dissent. More than anything, though, it probably contributed to the national debate going on, letting the public know that the administration was indeed moving toward a hugely accelerated involvement in the war at a time when, publicly, it was saying no such thing.
To use or withhold ``leaks''? There are no easy answers. The New York Times knew about the Bay of Pigs plan of invading Cuba but withheld the story in what it thought was the national interest. By disclosing the information and thus in advance ``blowing'' the invasion plan, it might well have prevented President Kennedy from going ahead with the operation, saving the President and the country from that disaster.
The government must have some way of operating secretly. Information about troop movements should not be published, since a loss of life could be involved - hence the lid the Reagan administration kept on the Grenada invasion story.
How in an open society can the government keep secrets that should be kept?
Congressional monitoring is obviously necessary, except when a president has to act swiftly. Still, leaks will occur when one of the monitoring congressmen (or one of his staff) decides through self-interest, or in what he conceives to be the public interest, to let the public know about it.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.