THE "GREAT GAME" of secret intelligence continues to exert its peculiar fascination on outsiders. The professionals who play that game are normally invested with the glamor of James Bond or of George Smiley. In fact theirs is an eerie, unreal world -- a "wilderness of mirros" in which the task of disentangling truth from falsehood, substance from shadow, becomes harder and not easier with the advance of sophisticated tradecraft. Amateur mole-hunters are naturally looked at askance by the insiders, though this may be more the case in Britain than in the United States, as I discovered recently in the course of some historical research. Spoors which led me to Anthony Blunt, a self-confessed Soviet spy, also drew me into corners of the twilit nether regions of British and American counterintelligence.

David C. Martin, of Newsweek's Washington bureau, could not have chosen a better title for this brief, lively and reasonably well documented study of the Central Intelligence Agency's first 30 years. Whether his handiwork will commend itself to past and present members of the agency itself is questionable. Yet Wilderness of Mirrors deserves to be widely read because, despite the inaccuracies and wrong interferences of which Martin will doubtless be accused, it draws together into a coherent if occasionally forced unity the record of the CIA's triumphs, setbacks, divided councils and inner turmoils since its foundation under Truman.

I am not sure that it was necessary or wise to impose on such a complex theme as a kind of subsidiary plot the distant, muted rivalry between two men who both directed and personified the CIA's covert activities: James Jesus Angleton, "or-child-grower, expert fly-fisherman, Ivy League intellectual and master of deception" who was chief of counterintelligence, and William King Harvey, "a small-town, Midwestern lawyer, who became a gun-toting, hard-drinking FBI agent," and "later spearheaded the CIA's clandestine forays against the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro's Cuba." Those words are not the author's but his publisher's. Martin admits to receiving no help from Angleton, and none from Harvey's widow. His principal sources were "retired intelligence officers; documents released under the Freedom of Information Act; and the public record." I am hardly surprised at his verdict that the last-named source proved the least reliable, nor that most of his witnesses inisisted on anonymity.

Enthralling as the story is, it is anything but elevating or edifying. Under Britain's draconian libel laws, I question whether Martin would have been allowed to write so plainly and fearlessly, especially in describing the uncooperative Angleton's fixation about the existence of a super-mole inside the CIA itself. In a book of little more than 200 pages, the provocative details are packed tightly and neatly. As the author implies at the outset, inconsistencies and even errors were almost bound to creep into a work which "begins and ends in mystery, with precious few solutions between." In his rather breathless analysis of "the dispatches sent from behind the American lines," Martin concludes that the CIA's war against the KGB has been going badly, not because the KGB is led by devilish geniuses but because the CIA has stood foolishly in its own light.

The most vividly controversial pages are those which dwell on Angleton's unshakable conviction, acquired in the early 1960s, that such plausible Soviet defectors as Michal Goleniewski and Yuri Nosenko, despite invaluable information they brought about the treacheries of George Blake, Gordon Lonsdale, Harry Houghton, Heinz Felfe and William John Vassall, were in reality cunningly placed Soviet penetration and disinformation agents. The suspicion grew by what it fed on, gradually "paralysing the agency's clandestine operations against the Soviet Union." Why Angleton and his superiors should have chosen to trust Anatoli Golitsin, whose defection in December 1961 followed that of Goleniewski and preceded that of Nosenko, is not entirely or satisfactorily explained. However, Golistin, bursting with paranoid conspiracy theories (few of which could be proved or genuinely tested), evidently became "the pet" of Angleton and the main source of the CIA's increasingly debilitating condition as futile attempts were made to track down the Washington super-mole.

The Western allies, including Britain, suffered indirectly through the time-consuming, counterproductive distractions of this great mole hunt. Golitsin's position of privilege enabled him repeatedly to assert the strangest things, and often to engineer faith in them: some were well founded, most were not. What he told M15 interrogators did prompt the reopening of the Philby case. It led to this already exposed Soviet agent's selective confession of past activities on behalf of the Russians who, in the nick of time, spirited him away to Moscow from Beirut. Another of Golitsin's tantalizing theories, voiced after a visit to Britain in 1963, was that "the KGB had poisoned [Hugh] Gaitskell [leader of the Opposition Labour Party] in order to promote the new leader . . ., Harold Wilson, who Golitsin said was a Soviet asset." This belongs to the trackless regions of higher lunacy, though gullible members of the secret world, British and American, apparently believed it. Is is any wonder that the CIA's moral and sense of purpose reached rock-bottom in the 1970s? To quote Martin again: since "the CIA had such trouble holding its own against the KGB when there were virtually no restraints on the tactics it could employ, how will it fare in this era"?

How indeed, in this reformed era of "stringent legislative charters and executive guidelines"? The gloomy, deeply introspective Angleton, now retired, may not be alone in fearing that the worst phase of the secret war against the KGB has still to come, with the shackled CIA quite unprepared for it.