Since its creation by President Reagan last June, the AIDS commission has been acting less like an advisory committee with a life-or-death mission and more like a covert- operations task force with something to hide.

The commission has been beleaguered by two resignations, a lawsuit and a congressional investigation. It has cloaked its own deliberations in secrecy, tiptoeing around federal laws that require open records and open meetings. The point, apparently, is to avoid a full and public debate on the AIDS crisis.

The AIDS commission was formed to study medical, ethical, social and economic impacts of the epidemic. It is governed by several "sunshine" laws guaranteeing public deliberations, including the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

But the chairman of the commission, retired admiral James D. Watkins, doesn't think much of that act and told a congressional committee how he circumvents it. "I think it imposes a tremendous burden on us, and I think what we are seeing now is an attempt even by ourselves to end run the system and find alternative techniques that do not violate FACA," Watkins testified in December before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is studying the law.

When Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) asked Watkins what those techniques were, Watkins said, "You talk on the phone a great deal." That eliminates the need for written memos and public meetings.

"When Adm. Watkins says he's trying to 'end run' around the statute, it sends a very clear signal to me that the spirit, if not the letter of FACA may be violated," Glenn told our reporter Sallie Dinkel.

Congressional investigators had trouble getting paperwork from the commission. "The primary documents missing are those from the White House," said Rosslyn Kleeman, senior associate director of the General Accounting Office.

The secrecy extends beyond the committee itself to White House decisions about the composition of the committee. We obtained a copy of a letter from the former vice chairman of the commission, Dr. Woodrow Meyers, who resigned along with the chairman, Dr. Eugene Mayberry, last October. In the letter, Meyers complains about "the great deal of secrecy within the White House on who has to be appointed."

But the blame for the conspiratorial aura around the commission may lie with the members themselves. They have meticulously avoided discussions that involve more than a few members at a time, which gets them around the open meetings required of a quorum.

The commission published an interim report last year without a discussion by the full group. How did it manage this? The panel's executive secretary, Polly Gault, said the commissioners came into the office two or three at a time to offer their opinions.

This penchant for secrecy is not the only reason the commission has been criticized. A coalition of civil rights groups has sued the commission, claiming that it is not balanced because it lacks a range of people affected by the disease. There is only one gay member on the commission, no one with AIDS and no one working directly with AIDS patients.