AH, YOU SEE, it goes like this: If you leave the keys in your car and some dopey kid spots them and makes off with the car, that's a crime -- not entrapment. If some witless woman dresses provocatively and some jerk assaults her, that's a crime, not entrapment.

But if the FBI sets up shop in a Washington house and politicians go there and there's cash money available, that could be entrapment. The reason for that, apparently, is that we have higher standards for rapists and car thieves than we do for politicians.

This, at the moment, appears to be the reasoning of a great many people in Washington. Maybe they have a point. This town is very sensitive about the FBI, having lived with it as the natives did with King Kong -- you never know when it's going to turn on you.

The bureau is a formidable operation. It has wire taps and bugs and listening devices to hear whispers through walls and informers and enough money to do almost anything. In the old days, it even did illegal things, like burglary, and there is no guarantee that the old days are not these days. Nowhere is it written that these things are not happening again.

And in the old days, a lot of what the FBI learned, it did not use up front. It put the dirty stuff in the files and J. Edgar Hoover would drop a hint from time to time that he had something on you. In this way, the FBI earned a lot of respect in this town.

I give you a case in point. In a previous life, I was for a time an investigative reporter and I worked on the stories about the probe that led to the resignation of Spiro T. Agnew. In this way I learned that some of the allegations against Agnew had been in the FBI files for years. The bureau, though, did nothing. The same information had to be developed independently later on.

So I know the FBI. And I know, too, the awful power of what is known as "targeting." If a government agency like the FBI wanted to "target" you, prove that you're a crook, it could do it -- especially if you're a businessman.There is maybe a businessman alive who has not twisted the law, cheated a bit on his taxes, gone to Mexico with his wife and put it down as a business trip, but I have never met the chap. There is a little larceny in most of us. That is not the same as saying we are all crooks.

And entrapment is nothing to laugh at, either. It is just plain intimidating. It toys with a person, playing with our concepts of right and wrong, good and bad. There are few among us who don't have our price.

But it is still too early to tell if the so-called "sting" operation amounted to either targeting or entrapment. All we know is that eight members of Congress are allegedly involved and that the news of the investigation leaked prematurely. For that, the Justice Department can be faulted. On entrapment, through, the jury is still out. It would be nice to see the evidence before making a judgement.

But even at this early date, there is something troubling about the allegations. In all the accounts, we keep hearing about cash, a total of several hundred thousands dollars. This should have been enough to warn all the politicians who allegedly are involved that something was wrong. Not only should they have kept away from the house on W Street NW, they should have gone to the FBI with what they knew. Instead, it was the other way around.

The fact of the matter, of course, is that ours is a check-writing, credit-card society. No person of any means, certainly not a businessman, deals in cash. Cash is the legal tender of corruption.It is a way of avoiding government scrutiny and it is precisely for this reason that the government's nose begins to twitch whenever it sniffs large amounts of cash. Like a bunch of teen-agers hanging around the corner, it can be up to no good.

The politicians allegedly involved in the "sting" knew this. They are all grown men and they knew better than most, the role of cash in politics. It is not, to say the least, the basic tool of reformers. Nevertheless, not a one of them yelled bloody murder that somewhere in Washington was a house where cash was being ladled out of a bucket. Instead, like bees to honey, they went there. Maybe the devil made them do it.

If a kid is supposed to pass up a car with a key in the ignition, it's not asking too much of politicians to take a pass on a sack full of cash. Maybe they were entrapped. But it wasn't only by the FBI. It was mostly by their own greed.