THE GRIFFIN By Arnold Kramish Houghton Mifflin. 294 pp. $17.95

Arnold Kramish is a scientist and technical consultant who has worked at various times for the Manhattan Project, the Rand Corp., the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and -- as the blurb on "The Griffin," his latest book, notes rather cryptically -- "other government agencies." It thus seems particularly fitting that Kramish should write the story of Paul Rosbaud, an Austrian scientist and technical consultant who spied on Germany's wartime effort to build the atomic bomb.

The Griffin -- Rosbaud's code name -- is a complex, driven character, one seemingly born, rather than recruited, to the role of spy. Rosbaud's mother kept his father's name a secret from her son to her grave. Rosbaud was 36 when Hitler came to power; the notorious Fragebogen compelled Rosbaud to invent a father and a personal history to prove his Aryan ancestry. Though he was outwardly a loyal citizen of the Reich, Rosbaud's true sympathies found both a focus and an outlet when friends and relatives were made to suffer at the hands of the Nazis. As scientific adviser to Springer Verlag, a German publishing house specializing in technical texts, Rosbaud used his international contacts to help Jewish scientists escape from the Reich. After the war broke out, the same contacts enabled him to keep Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) informed of the status of atomic research in Germany.

Ironically, perhaps the most intriguing "untold" story of the book concerns not the Griffin but the seeming fecklessness of Allied intelligence services. Kramish makes a convincing case that Rosbaud was the author of a technical report on German secret weapons that was given to the British in 1939 and has been described as the "most astonishing intelligence document of the Second World War." Remarkably, this work, the Oslo Report -- which contained the first mention of Peenemu nde, where Wernher von Braun and his team were building the V1 and V2 rockets -- was ignored by the British, who suspected it of being "disinformation."

Rosbaud tried again to alert the British to the significance of the German rocket base in the autumn of 1941. But because the SIS lacked a technical analyst and because the British were single-mindedly looking for the atomic bomb, Peenemu nde remained untouched by Allied bombs until August 1943 -- less than a year before the first Nazi V-weapons began landing on England.

Another significant mystery -- one raised but left unanswered in "The Griffin" -- is why the British failed to pass along to the Americans what they learned from Rosbaud about the German atomic bomb. As Kramish points out, it was not until Allied troops began sweeping across occupied Europe in 1944 that U.S. anxiety about a Nazi bomb began to subside. But the British, thanks to Rosbaud, had known since at least 1942 that German scientists had taken the wrong scientific tack. Because they chose to use heavy water instead of graphite for their prototype nuclear reactor, the Germans were making little progress toward a bomb.

The decision of the British to keep their own counsel proved to have more than just academic significance. American misapprehension about German scientific prowess was the reason for the Eighth Air Force's bombing mission against the Norwegian heavy-water production plant at Vemork on Nov. 15, 1943, which killed 16 civilians and destroyed a nitrate plant vital for food production but left the heavy-water apparatus untouched. Some eight months later the Norwegians, at the behest of the British, blew up the ferry Hydro, sending the entire German stockpile of heavy water -- along with 26 passengers and crew -- to the bottom of a deep lake.

As it turns out, the British realized at the same time that neither the bombing of Vemork nor the sinking of the Hydro -- nor for that matter, an earlier commando attack on the heavy-water plant that would one day be immortalized by a book and a popular movie -- was needed to keep the ultimate weapon out of Hitler's hands. Kramish writes that it was already "quite certain that the Germans were going nowhere in making the bomb."

Why, then, the gratuitous bombing, sinking and sabotage? Kramish, who is plainly no stranger to spying's wilderness of mirrors, hypothesizes that the SIS may have duped its American and Norwegian allies about Nazi progress toward the bomb in order to better deceive the Germans into thinking that heavy water was the key to what they were after.

Kramish's book may also prompt its readers to suspect that there is still much to be told about the life of the Griffin, who was smuggled out of Berlin in military uniform at the end of 1945 by his SIS contact and who continued to act as a consultant for European publishers until his death of leukemia in 1963. Tantalizingly, the official SIS history gives only the barest acknowledgment of Rosbaud's wartime importance, while the CIA denies even having his name in its files; other archival sources on Rosbaud are sealed until 1993.

Despite Kramish's careful research, which included interviews with approximately 500 of those who knew Rosbaud, it is an ironic tribute to this bookish spy's mastery of his trade that the Griffin remains a surprisingly shadowy figure, one who continues to defy the effort to capture him.

The reviewer, author of "Counsels of War," is senior research associate at the University of California's Institute on Global Conflict.