It is billed as the real story behind Watergate, 468 pages that weave facts and assertions with a good deal of speculation into a tale linking the scandal with Washington call girls and a military spy ring.

But "Silent Coup: The Removal of a President" got off to a rocky start yesterday as the publisher held a press conference in New York to defend the book on the day of its release. The event followed decisions by "60 Minutes" and Time magazine not to run advance stories on the book.

Thomas J. McCormack, chairman of St. Martin's Press, said he was responding to "a concerted campaign ... to smear the book. It seems to us the answer is to have a press conference first to stop it."

The authors, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, portray John Dean, the Nixon White House counsel widely credited with blowing the whistle on Watergate, as the scandal's chief villain, with a healthy assist from Alexander Haig, Richard Nixon's chief of staff. The book tends to cast the other major players -- former attorney general John Mitchell, White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, and Nixon himself -- in a more favorable light.

The book's grand thesis is that military officials, upset about Nixon's conduct of foreign policy, helped orchestrate the leaks that led to Nixon's downfall. The authors go on at length about a previously disclosed Pentagon ring that spied on the White House for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, although they never quite establish that this provided the subtext for Watergate.

Dean "deceived the president of the United States into joining a conspiracy to obstruct justice in order to cover up a crime that Nixon had not committed, and to conceal Dean's own crimes," the book says.

At the news conference -- attended by Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, who backed the book's version of history -- Colodny called Dean "a very skillful liar."

Dean returned fire in a statement from his Los Angeles office, calling the book "absolute garbage" and "a fraud ... full of twisted details and minutiae ad nauseam ... scurrilous and baseless assertions ... pure fiction and fabrication ... an unscrupulous effort to sell books."

The CBS News program "60 Minutes" had planned to feature the book Sunday night, but "we talked to an awful lot of people and decided we couldn't stand behind what {the authors} were saying," said Executive Producer Don Hewitt. Time had agreed to buy first serial rights but dropped the plan on grounds that it was "a little too arcane," a spokesman said.

Colodny, an investigator and political analyst in Tampa, Fla., is a former Montgomery County consultant hired to investigate the "Liquorgate" scandal who was fired in 1980 after clashing with then-County Executive Charles Gilchrist. Gettlin is a former Washington Star and Newhouse Newspapers reporter.

While the book is larded with interesting details and footnotes, the reader is asked to make a leap of faith to some of the more conspiratorial conclusions. Some of the theories are so complicated that even hardened Watergate buffs will find them hard to follow.

The authors finger Haig as the chief leaker to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (although they describe Deep Throat, Woodward's super-secret source, as a fictional device). While Woodward was a Navy lieutenant in 1969 and 1970, they say, he provided briefings to Brig. Gen. Haig, then a top National Security Council official and later Ronald Reagan's secretary of state.

"It's not true," Woodward said. "I didn't meet Al Haig {while in the Navy}, and if I did I'd be delighted to say so... . They are incorrect in what they write about me."

In the book, Woodward is quoted as saying, "I defy you to produce somebody who says I did a briefing." The authors say they produced three such people, but two of them disputed the accounts in telephone interviews.

Retired Adm. Thomas Moorer called the claim "ridiculous" and "a flat lie," saying the authors "never talked to me ... I never heard of them." Former Pentagon spokesman Jerry Friedheim said he had no idea whether Woodward ever briefed Haig and doesn't recall speaking to the authors. Colodny and Gettlin say they have those and other interviews on tape.

The book says Haig's torrent of leaks to Woodward included disclosure of gaps in the White House tapes. Haig spokesman Woody Goldberg called the claims that Haig was disloyal to Nixon "preposterous" and "bogus... . It's almost like a counterculture spy novel."

The book's heaviest artillery is reserved for Dean, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and implicated top White House aides in the Watergate coverup through his Senate testimony and in court.

Colodny and Gettlin accuse Dean of "complete fabrications" and of shifting the blame to Mitchell "to mask a desperate need to cover his own misdeeds." When there are conflicting stories, they generally believe Jeb Magruder, Liddy, Mitchell, Haldeman and Ehrlichman -- all convicted Watergate felons -- over Dean.

Their version of the 1972 break-in at Democratic headquarters is that Nixon campaign operatives were trying to dig up dirt on a call girl ring, which operated through an unnamed person at the Democratic National Committee. A key woman in the ring, the authors say, was Erika "Heidi" Rikan (a k a Cathy Dieter), the friend and housemate of Maureen Biner, then Dean's girlfriend and later his wife.

Tossing details from Watergate burglars and White House gumshoes into the cauldron, the authors suggest that Dean ordered the DNC break-in because he wanted to dig up sexual dirt on the Democrats -- then masterminded the coverup almost from the moment the burglars were caught. Dean is even blamed for suggesting that the White House use the CIA to block the FBI from investigating Watergate -- a gambit that essentially forced Nixon's resignation after he was heard embracing it on the "smoking gun" White House tape of June 23, 1972.

Dean yesterday said the book had resurrected the call girl allegation and added "a deceased friend of my wife and myself who cannot defend herself" in an attempt "to smear my wife and draw her into the mire of Watergate."

Staff writer Laurie Goodstein in New York contributed to this report.