THIS IS THE WAY I heard the story. I heard that two men, immigrants from a small town high in the mountains of Eastern Europe, one day arranged the marriage of their children.They were in America, but the old men made the marriage bargain anyway. They shook hands on it. They drank on it and when they parted they had tears eyes for the joy of the occasion. It was the son who balked. He looked at her father with bewildered, umcomprehending eyes and said that this was America. He would choose his own wife, thank you. He sent his father off to his death.

The person who told me the story continued. The old man told his friend that he could not produce his son. He told him the deal was off. He told him these things knowing that these were not excuses at all, that there was a matter of honor here and that someone would have to die. In the end, it was the father of the boy. This was the way of the village in the mountains. This was the way affairs of honor were settled. This was traditional. It also happened to be murder.

The person who told me that story was a criminologist and he told it to illustrate how there are subgroups in the society where crimes, even murders, are condoned under certain circumstances. Once you see the "crime" through the eyes of the person who committed it, you may not be seeing a crime at all, but a socially acceptable act - like killing a man who has dishonored your family.To the old man, he had no choice. His daughter had been rejected. Something had to be done. Even the victim understood that.

I thought of that story because I have been thinking lately of a man named John J. Kearney, a graduate of Holy Cross College, who used to be an FBI supervisor in New York. I don't know the man, but I feel as if I do. He is probably religious, dedicated, patriotic, conservative and respectful of authority. Nothing to be ashamed of here. He has been indicated on charges of illegal wiretapping, mail opening and conspiracy in connection with survillance of the antiwar group, The Weathermen. No one has charged that Kearney ever did anything for fun or for profit or for any reason than for the good of his country - for the flag, as we used to say. Nevertheless, the same jail awaits him as the mugger who yokes old ladies in the hallway.

In fact, there is ample reason to believe that FBI agents and other members of what is sometimes called "the intelligence community" either thought that these activities were legal or condoned. After all, they did what they did because they were following orders or for the highest motives. At the very least, they knew that someone up the line was winking at them, saying that maybe what they were doing was, strictly speaking, illegal, but who was speaking strictly. I mean, after all, does an ambulance have to wait for a green light?

This, more or less, is the argument you hear from former members of the intelligence community and from the present director of the FBI, Clarence M. Kelly. He has asked Attorney General Griffin Bell to halt prosecution of all FBI agents for alleged illegal acts performed in the line of duty, citing, of all things, declining morale in the bureau. As for Kearney, Kelley has nothing but praise for him: "I know my Kearney to have been an outstanding special agent who was motivated in all his endeavors by the best of intentions." Suddenly, we are back to the old men who tried to arrange a marriage. It is intent that counts. It is self-perception that counts. Crimes committed by people who do not consider themselves criminals are not crimes. Crimes committed for honorable reasons are not crimes.

I understand. I sympathize. I take the side of those who have had the rules changed on them. There are more involved here than one man. If he did anything, someone was egging him on, someone was turning a back, someone was winking approval, someone was saying that there were rules that weren't written down and these were the rules that were to be followed.

But there is a another story to be hold here and it has nothing to do with old men. It has to do with a young man, a guy I knew slightly, who was dissident and who managed to go to North Vietnam during the war. The night before he left, he invited me to his apartment in New York. It was a barely furnished place with green linoleum on the floor.The man pointed to the light fixture and to the phone and indicated they were bugged.

So there I was in that room and maybe that light fixture was bugged and maybe that phone was tapped and maybe everything. I said that night went into a tape and then into a file and then someone slammed the file drawer shut and put the label Cohen on it. I don't know. But I do know that I got an inkling that night of what it is like to be up against a powerful government and why men years ago decided that that power had to be limited. And I knew something else, too. The man about to go to Vietmam and the man who had allegedly bugged his apartment had at least one thing in common.

They both thought they were doing the right thing.