Philip Roettinger is an old boy enrolling in a new school. Tall, straight-backed and well-spoken, Roettinger, 72, is an alumnus of the Central Intelligence Agency. Among other inglorious deeds in the spying trade, he was part of the successful 1954 effort to overthrow left-leaning Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. Howard Hunt's cloak and dagger were also on that scene. Roettinger, ex-CIA case officer and former Marine colonel, is now president of the newly formed Association for Responsible Dissent (ARDIS).

Some of that dissenting was heard recently when Roettinger and 13 other former CIA officials -- from undercover agents to counterintelligence specialists -- announced the purpose of their group: "We are going to try to expose covert action. We're going to try to get it legally banned because we can find no reason, no justification, for covert action on the part of the American people."

The group spoke of congressional and public records being "replete with accounts of U.S. covert operations that killed, wounded and terrorized millions of people whose countries were not at war with the United States nor possessed the capabilities to do remarkable physical hurt to the United States, who themselves bore the United States no ill will nor cared greatly about the issues of 'communism' or 'capitalism.' "

With the group estimating that "at least six million people have died as a consequence of U.S. covert operations since World War II," one question rushes in from the cold. With 6 million dead, why not go beyond the banning of only covert actions to abolishing the CIA altogether?

The answer is that the ARDIS members are semiradicals. Their goals reflect humaneness, democratic idealism and genuine love of country, but timidity is still present. The giveaway is that they have associated under the name of "responsible dissent," as if had they turned up the heat it would boil over into "irresponsible" dissent. The association's director, John Stockwell, who worked covertly in the Congo, Vietnam and Angola, was asked whether his group was "a bunch of crackpots." No, he answered, "We're distinguished citizens, doctors, lawyers and attorneys. We have medals that we earned risking our lives defending the country."

Hooray for the medals, and keep them shined. But the issue now is half-hearted dissent. One reason that the CIA -- the killer of 6 million -- is welcomed as a recruiter on American campuses is that the lone few protesters who correctly see the agency as a portable police state are dismissed as irresponsible. Allegedly liberal administrations at the universities of Massachusetts and Iowa sided with the CIA when students staged demonstrations to protest the recruiting.

If students are willing to make a radical commitment, why not the same from these former covert operators who know the details of their past horrors? To control the CIA through the tempered reform of eliminating covert action is to get mired in the debate that many CIA critics are willing to engage in -- the elephant became too roguish, a harbor or two too many was mined, a William Casey was overzealous.

This is the pitch made by Stansfield Turner. The former CIA director, who speaks publicly about the agency's record of killing and other "things we should be ashamed of as a country," told The Progressive magazine two years ago that errors have been made: "They were generally errors of excessive enthusiasm to get the job done, to protect the country."

To protect it from what -- 6 million people who needed to be rubbed out because a Casey, Richard Helms, William Colby, Allen Dulles or some other unaccountable director ruled them a threat?

Working to eliminate covert action, or even closing the agency, is worthy only in the way that subduing a crazed hostage-holding gunman is. It's a stance of basic revulsion against a policy of death. The radical position, as against the safely responsible one, is to work for the kind of America that won't put protecting its excessive power ahead of the needs of the world's powerless. We may then see that the country's vaunted "vital interests" were really its vital excesses.

To eliminate the CIA means a willingness to devise a new economic and political system that opposes the planet's poverty, disease and famine with the fervor that the current system battles communism. No CIA, nor any other violence-dealing agency, would be needed for that. The operations would be overt.