For John H. Bradley, there was really no choice. Remaining silent, he says now, would have been "tantamount to treason."

For five years he had worked as a $32,000 a year Department of Defense computer specialist in charge of testing an electronic system that would link U.S. military computers around the world. The Pentagon had staked much of the country's military preparedness on such a network, but Bradley became convinced the system was unreliable, and that his supervisors were "covering up" its flaws.

So in early 1977 Bradley did something that people who work for large organizations and want to keep their jobs are very frightened to do: he went outside the bureaucracy. He "blew the whistle." He called on a staffer at the White House who put him in touch with a man on the National Security Council. He also called on Capitol Hill. For his trouble, in July, he was fired.

But that was just the beginning. In his quest for vindication he entreated lawyers, politicians, journalists and bureaucrats to prove his charges and, as well, clear him name. The quest obsessed him and transformed him. He lost 30 pounds. He was diagnosed an acute chronic depressive, and underwent psychiatric treatment.

Talking of little else but his case, he would grow lachrymose and paranoid. Old friends would say, "the John Bradley of today is not the John Bradley of five years ago."

What happened to John Bradley happened because he had a piece of compelling information in a city where information is always seen as a form of opportunity.Because Bradley was convinced what he had to say was true, his conscience would not let him keep silent. But the ambiguities that still surround his claims have embroiled them in matters that have more to do with electoral ambitions than national security. In the way Bradley's charges have been manipulated, and in the way the man himself is depicted as both a liar and a patriot, there is a story that goes to the nature of power, and politics, and Washington.

For the past three weeks, Newton I. Steers, who used to be a congressman from Maryland's 8th congressional district and would like nothing better than to be a congressman again, has been running $25,000 worth of television ads criticizing Rep. Michael Barnes, the incumbent Steers is challenging for the seat that slipped out of his hands in 1978. Steers charges that Barnes did nothing when a whistleblower named John Bradley, a man who was one of Barnes' constituents, came and told him the "network on which the president depends to react to nuclear attack is unreliable."

In a district where the constituent is one of the highest forms of life, the Bradley affair has become the dominant issue of the campaign.

"It really is the essential issue in the campaign as it's developed," says Steers' campaign manager Howard Denis. "A congressman who doesn't do good constituent service is exposing his jugular. We feel Bradley is a powerful symbol. We went into this as we've gone into few other things."

To what extent John Bradley is creditable, and to what extent he is properly a "whistleblower" are questions that are not entirely clear, and until they are it will be impossible to judge the political opportunism involved in making Bradley a campaign issue. Two things are certain. The former defense expert is no stranger to Capitol Hill and controversy has marked much of his career. i

Bradley went to work at the Defense Communications Agency in May 1972 as a GS14 in charge of testing and evaluating a $25 million prototype data processing system being built to link six computers of the 35-computer World Wide Military Command and Control System -- Wimex for short.

As he got deeper into his work Bradley discovered that "reliability was being shortchanged." When he complained through DCA channels he says he was rebuffed.

Bradley's boss at the time was Marsden Champaign, chief of the Wimex Automatic Data Processing System that was to link the computers world-wide. a

"Mr. Bradley is not a whistleblower," Champaign said. "No supervisor, no manager in DCA, no member of Congress ever considered him a whistleblower. . . . We do have problems with the reliability in Wimex. There are ailments that the best brains have not been able to find. But if you listened to him you'd conclude nobody ever did anything about anything."

Bradley was fired July 1, 1977 for inefficiency, resisting competent authority and making false and misleading statements about Wimex. The first two were upheld at a Civil Service hearing a year later, and the third was overturned. Three months before his firing Bradley, who lived in Bethesda, had contacted Congressman Newton Steers, who met with him, and assigned a caseworker to look into his charges.

Bradley also contacted Sen. Charles Mathias who asked the special fraud unit of the GAO to investigate his claims. But the congressman with the largest file on Bradley is Gunn McKay of Utah whose aide David Lee was a neighbor of Bradley's. McKay asked the House Armed Services Committee counsel John Lally to look into the case. Were the questions on reliability raised by Bradley new? "I don't believe so," Lally says.

Meanwhile Bradley was pursuing some of his grievances in court. The verdicts went against him. He ran through four lawyers, one of whom, Gwendolyn Jo Carlberg, won an $18,000 judgment against him for back legal fees. He has sued her for malpractice.

"This man should not be made a martyr," Carlberg said. "John Bradley does not have the credibility."

The Dept. of Labor turned him down for workman's compensation, and after being diagnosed as an acute chronic depressive he received $900 a month disability pay from the government. "There's no question I'm sick," Bradley says. "The question they omit is why I got that way."

David Lee, Bradley's friend in McKay's office, said, "John Bradley's sole intent was to improve the reliability of the system. I do not think his concerns are frivolous. I am concerned about the systematic discrediting of John Bradley. . . . On one hand I am disgusted by what Newton Steers is doing. Barnes acted entirely consistent with what any good congressman would have done."

But Bradley got a boost in December 1979 when the General Accounting Office found that despite outlays topping $1 billion the Wimex system was seriously impaired because the intercomputer network (the prototype of which Bradley worked on) "is not reliable."

That, in addition to malfunctions this past summer that put the country on false alerts, means that the situation is changed from when Steers first had the case in 1977 and was not able to prevent Bradley from losing his job.

Although Barnes assigned a staffer to look into Bradley's case, he concluded that there was not much to be done since the case was still in the courts, and, moreover, he claims that Bradley agreed with him.

For the time being the topic has dominated debates between the two candidates, with Steers claiming that Barnes' tepid reaction to a constituent in need speaks to a broader dislike for the grubby work of taking care of the people. Steers has even gone so far as to ask the three presidential candidates to reopen the John Bradley case.

Says Denis, his campaign chairman, "In a sense, we seem to be running a congressional office in exile."