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Getting the story straight

IT is not surprising, in time of war, for governments to mislead the enemy about troop movements, the timing of assaults, and so forth. But generally the truism that honesty is the best policy, or else that you keep silent if you cannot disclose the truth, is sound advice to follow, for governments as well as individuals.

Deceit breaks down trust. It contaminates relations. It most hurts the deceiver, destroying his credibility when, ultimately, the truth emerges.

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Thus it is disturbing to read that the Reagan administration contemplated, authorized, and to some degree carried out a ``disinformation'' campaign, including leaking false information to the press, directed against Col. Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.

The White House apparently intended to undermine the confidence of Colonel Qaddafi or provoke him into rash action with reports of rebellion in his ranks or the prospect of a new United States military assault.

To mislead a declared enemy, by troop actions, for instance, is one thing. But to contemplate manipulating a free press, to make it an unwitting agent of the government, can only poison the confidence of the public and the nation's allies in anything the government says. Confidence in the press, too, can be inescapably tainted.

A story in the Aug. 25 Wall Street Journal, quoting administration sources, precipitated the disinformation affair. An administration spokesman backed up the thrust of the story.

Then, last week, the Washington Post disclosed that some of the Wall Street Journal reportage may have reflected a campaign of ``deception'' against Qaddafi outlined in administration memos. The subsequent cloud of official explanation, affirmation, and denial makes one wonder where, really, the truth of the matter lies.

As a reflection of administration attitudes toward Colonel Qaddafi, its fixation with what he's up to, its eagerness to whap him again, the original Journal story still looks pretty good. The administration's misjudgments in policy, including an apparent willingness in August to risk another postponement of the Soviet summit by provoking a clash with Qaddafi, should not be obscured by the flap over its news-manipulation techniques.

To function properly, the American press relies on a degree of trust -- as does democracy itself, wherein voters are trusted to decide the course of their government. A free press relies on the privacy of sources and a methodology of multiple interviews and cross-checking to ensure integrity; a cabal among sources can help generate a defective story against which there is no immediate defense.

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