Spelling out the terms of the United States Navy's Lebanon mission in the clearest terms yet, Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. says the Navy is providing supporting fire to the Lebanese army.
In a meeting with defense reporters, Mr. Lehman said, ''There is very definitely a shift in emphasis to make it clear that we will be providing supporting fire to the Lebanese armed forces. . . .''
cc20p6 Shortly afterward, White House spokesman Larry Speakes told reporters Lehman was in error, saying, ''Whatever we do . . . is in support of Americans and the multinational force.''
Also drawn into the controversy was the Pentagon, whose spokesman Michael Burch, said ''We're not providing fire in direct support of the Lebanese armed forces. . . . We're providing fire under the rules of engagement provided by the president.''
The Lehman statement followed a week marked by confusing statements from administration officials concerning the use of American naval gunfire in Lebanon.
First indications from the administration last week were that the gunfire was being used to protect the US marines in Beirut and the multinational force (MNF) of which they are a part. One case of naval shelling was in response to a rocket attack directed at the residence of the US ambassador in Beirut.
Finally, it became clear late last week that the Navy was supporting the Lebanese army even in cases where the marines were not endangered, but officials remained fuzzy on that issue. The administration's imprecision seemed to be caused by a desire to minimize charges from Lebanese and American critics that the US peacekeeping force was taking sides in a civil war.