Secretary of State George P. Shultz, starting a crackdown on what he has called a "gusher" of news leaks, fired a mid-level State Department employee Friday for disclosing a classified diplomatic cable in a move that backfired and embarrassed the Administration on Capitol Hill.
Department spokesman Charles Redman, who announced the dismissal, said the action was intended to be a deterrent to other would-be leakers. "The department will continue to deal strictly with any of its employees who have made unauthorized disclosures of classified information," he said.
Redman refused to identify the employee, but State Department officials later identified him as Spencer Warren, an employee of the policy planning staff specializing in Latin America.
The official said Warren gave the Washington Post a copy of a cable from Frank V. Ortiz Jr., U.S. ambassador to Argentina, criticizing the conduct of a congressional delegation, led by House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), on a visit to Buenos Aires.
The newspaper reported April 10 that Ortiz had complained that O'Neill, California Rep. Pete Stark (D-Oakland) and Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.) criticized Reagan Administration policy during meetings with Argentine officials. The ambassador said the action undercut his position as sole U.S. representative to Buenos Aires.
The leak touched off a backlash against the Administration on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers, even some with solid pro-Administration records, criticized the Ortiz memo.
Redman said Shultz personally ordered the dismissal of the employee, a political appointee who wrote speeches and served "at the pleasure of the secretary." He said the worker held the government grade GS-15, the salary for which ranges from $52,000 to $67,000 a year.
He said the employee admitted that he was the source of the leak and apologized to Shultz. The dismissal was effective Friday.
The State Department action followed the April 29 firing by the Defense Department of Assistant Undersecretary Michael E. Pillsbury, who officials said disclosed that Stinger anti-aircraft missiles were being sent to rebels in Angola and Afghanistan.
In the past, dismissals for disclosing classified information have been extremely rare, probably because most Administration leaks are intended to advance policy and those who disagree with Administration positions frequently are able to cover their tracks.
However, the attitude toward leaks in the Administration has hardened in recent months. In a speech to the Overseas Writers Assn. on Wednesday, Shultz said: "As far as our government is concerned, it's a gusher. It's disgusting the way stuff leaks out, and we've got to find the people who are doing it and fire them."
Redman said the Justice Department had declined to prosecute the fired State Department employee but said: "Federal prosecution will be undertaken in future cases as appropriate."
He said the employee did not submit to a lie detector test as part of the investigation that led to his dismissal.
"The department is losing an otherwise productive and trustworthy employee," Redman said. "But we believe that leaking of classified information is a serious breach of the discipline required of all public servants.
"Leaks can undermine the confidentiality needed in the decision-making process. . . . Leaks can also threaten the security of our nation, or of friendly nations, or the safety of individuals, or our sources of vital information."