Predawn risers were seeing the sun come up on a history-making moment: the first time citizens in large numbers would commit civil disobedience at the CIA. Dissident-patriots from Martin Luther King Jr. to Daniel Berrigan have broken the law everywhere else -- from courthouses to bomb factories -- to protest the government's violence. This Monday morning, at last, it was the CIA, America's dark hive of covert death planning.

Arrests began at 7 a.m. The pace of crime-stopping was slow. At the south gate the Fairfax County police, equipped with clubs and Mace, readied for the worst but not the obvious. They parked paddy wagons 100 yards away from the protesters blocking the roadway. Enlightenment, like the sun, eventually dawned, and the police moved the wagons to within a few feet of the demonstration. Hauling time, except for those protesters schooled in Gandhian noncooperation who went limp when grabbed by a cop, would be shortened.

It didn't matter. It would be a long morning even if interstate moving vans were carting off people. By noon, 557 citizens had been arrested. All were nonviolent. They were college students, social workers, union members, clergy and lay religious people, the retired, peace group organizers and others appalled or angered at the CIA's subversion and secret wars that are corrupting its purpose.

David Dellinger, Philip Berrigan and Daniel Ellsberg, three in the honor guard of contemporary American dissent, were wagoned off early. Dellinger, in Washington to be sentenced for civil disobedience at the U.S. Capitol last summer, may have been the only demonstrator who served time before the CIA was established. He saw it coming, though. In 1943, on his way to federal prison for civil disobedience, he offered an analysis that could have been uttered Monday morning: "Just as it would be stupid to plant weeds and try to harvest vegetables, so it would be stupid to encourage the lies, conscription, and murder of war, and hope to produce democracy, freedom and brotherhood."

That so many were willing to be arrested at Langley -- 557 out of about 1,500 on hand -- offered further evidence that civil disobedience is booming. The Nuclear Register, a journal that covers the conscience and protest beat, reports that 4,500 citizens were arrested in 1986 for civil disobedience against the Reagan administration's military policies in Central America. Some 3,200 dissenters were arrested at 75 American and Canadian sites in protest against the building of nuclear weapons. Another 2,500 broke the law at antiapartheid demonstrations.

This information might be better known if the mainstream media weren't determined to equate these demonstrations with the 1960s. On the Friday before 75,000 people marched in Washington to protest the Reagan policies in Central America and South Africa, USA Today headlined its "cover story": "Weekend protests set to '60s beat." Saturday on NBC News, Connie Chung prefaced a story on that day's march with a '60s reference. On Sunday, a Washington Post headline said: "Critics of Foreign Policy Stage '60s-Style Protest."

This penchant to look backward -- the lefties are rattling their cages again -- distorts reality. After 20 years the barricades to which protesters are currently posting themselves in large numbers are immensely different. "In the 1960s," Ruth Leger Sivard, the military analyst, wrote recently, "Civilian and military deaths were about equal, but in the last decade civilian deaths rose sharply. The average in the later period is three civilian deaths to one battle death."

Instead of looking back at the '60s and comparing the haircuts of both eras' protesters, focus needs to be kept on exactly what draws 557 citizens to be arrested at dawn at the CIA. In 1975, a Senate committee held hearings on the CIA's covert violence. It was out of control, said Frank Church, the committee chairman: The covert wing is "a self-serving apparatus. It's a bureaucracy which feeds on itself, and those involved are constantly sitting around thinking up schemes for {foreign} intervention which will win them promotions and justify further additions to the staff ... It self-generates interventions that otherwise never would be thought of, let alone authorized."

In 12 years, it has worsened. The Mobilization for Justice and Peace in Central America and South Africa, organizer of last weekend's events, reports that more than 50 major CIA operations are in progress around the world, a 500 percent increase over the last year of the Carter administration.

The CIA has come to represent America's state terrorism. On Monday, those 557 worthy citizens, who didn't cower or turn chicken, were true demonstrators. The Langley 557 demonstrated options: Some people find an excuse to avoid opposing the government's violence, others find a way.