WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration hinted Monday at possible U.S. military action against Libya in retaliation for last week's terrorist attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports, which U.S. intelligence organizations believe were carried out by a radical Palestinian faction sponsored by Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.
In a sudden reversal of the Administration's weekend statements urging restraint, White House spokesman Larry Speakes and State Department spokesman Charles Redman said in identical statements that the perpetrators of the attacks were "beyond the pale of civilization and must be held responsible for their crimes."
Fourteen travelers, including five Americans, were killed in the Friday assaults; four of the seven terrorists were killed by police.
The Military Option
"The military option is one we have always retained," Redman said in Washington. And Speakes, in Palm Springs, where President Reagan is spending the New Year's holiday, added, "Certainly U.S. military options are always an option."
Redman, while deliberately ambiguous on other points, left little doubt that the United States holds Libya primarily responsible for the attack and considers Kadafi's country to be the most likely target if Washington decides to retaliate with military force.
Both Redman and Speakes said that all evidence available so far points to the violent Palestinian faction led by Abu Nidal, which was expelled from the mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization, as being responsible for the attack.
But Redman said the organization depends heavily on support from Kadafi and his Libyan regime. And he made it clear that the United States assigns ultimate blame for the attack to the Tripoli government.
Support of Terrorism
"We believe Kadafi has given Abu Nidal and his group a considerable amount of financing and assistance," Redman said. "We know that Abu Nidal and many other terrorist groups have benefited from, and perhaps could not have survived without, the assistance of countries which have supported terrorism: The weapons, the explosives, the training, rest areas, safehouses and other such facilities have been invaluable."
By pointing a finger at Libya, the Administration hoped to avoid the problem that in the past often made it difficult for the United States to respond to terrorism--the inability to select the right target for a retaliatory strike.
However, the Abu Nidal faction, which has offices in Libya and Syria, is so small and its members are so mobile that some officials believe that it would be almost impossible to stage a military attack that would punish the organization without injuring innocent civilians.
The Administration has said consistently that it would retaliate for terrorist attacks only if it could be sure who was responsible and where the terrorists were located. U.S. officials sometimes have criticized Israel for using a looser standard in determining where and how to respond to attacks.
Reagan Letter to Peres
In a weekend letter to Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Reagan urged restraint in the wake of the assaults at the El Al airline counters in Rome and Vienna.
However, officials made it clear Monday that the Administration's main concern was that the Jerusalem government might strike at PLO bases in Tunisia or Jordan--both nations friendly to the United States. Clearly, Washington has no such objections to an attack on Libya.
"If you can find terrorists and seek them out and hit those responsible for it, go at it, go to it," Speakes said.
Both Speakes and Redman said the United States is considering economic and diplomatic actions against Libya as well as the use of military force, and Redman emphasized that several different options might be selected.
Another State Department official said later that the United States hopes to use the Rome and Vienna airport attacks to persuade Western European nations--particularly Italy, Austria and Greece--to take a stronger diplomatic line against Kadafi and terrorism.
The official said that Greece, Italy and Austria "thought they could buy immunity" by being sympathetic to the PLO, and he indicated that the United States is satisfied that they now seem to be reassessing that view.
Craxi Statement Hailed
Possibly to underline that point, Redman approvingly quoted Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi in explaining why the United States holds Libya responsible.
"I would recall the statement of Prime Minister Craxi where he said that states which protected the terrorists and allowed them to arm and organize themselves bear responsibility for this attack," Redman said. "That's a statement with which we sympathize."
Times staff writer Michael Wines, in Palm Springs, also contributed to this story.