RICHARD PERLE is 35 years old and smart - or brilliant, or admirably effective, or an evil genuis, depending on who is describing him. Whatever the proper adjectives, Richard Perle has power. He may be one of the dozen most important people in Washington in the area of strategic arms policy.

Perle's line is hard. From his cramped office on Capitol Hill runs what one critical friend calls " a detente-wrecking operation." (Perle has a lot of friends who don't agree with him, which is not so common for such a stalwart hard-liner.)

Skeptics of detente and people who fear for America's future in the face of a Soviet military buildup describe Perle in heroic terms. "He's done our cause a lot good," said one. "Invaluable," said another.

Though little known outside the areas of his expertise, Perle's name is a household word within the strategic community. He is a classic example of the powerful Washington who rarely even gets mentioned in a newspaper.

On the other hand, he is quoted in the newspapers regularly, repeatedly. Only not by name. Perle appears as an "informed source" or something of the kind. "He is unquestionably one of our town's greatest leakers," according to one journalist who dealt with Perle often.

Richard Perle has no official status that would give him power over affairs of state. His title is modest: "professional staff member" of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. His influence comes not from his title, but from his actual position; Perle is Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson's right-hand man in the national security field.

Jackson (D-Wash) has a special role inthis area. As one former staff member in the Senate put it, he has traditionally been "by far the best informed" senator on national security issues. He is also one of very few who has tried to master those issues.

Jackson's information comes largely from two intimate associates, Perle and Dorothy Fosdick. This trio is usually close and unusually hard-working by the standards of Capitol Hill. Perle is young enough to be Jackson's or Fosdick's son and, according to several associates, the two of them sometimes act as though they think of Perle that way. Fosdick, it is said, often prods Perle to come to work earlier - he likes to sleep late and work into the night.

The work Perle and Fosdick do for Jackson is widely thought to be the most effective foreign policy staff work done for any senator. "They always have the best briefing books," one former colleague said.

But Perle is much more than a staff man. He is also a lobbyist, a manipulator of news and opinion, a great collector of sensitive information, an agitator. By his own admission, Perle has participated in "innumerable little operations to affect the way things turned out" inside the government. Perle is the quintessential Washington operator.

Perle's official connection with the investigations subcommittee of the Committee on Governmental Affairs (formerly Government Operations) is largely symbolic. Indeed, to think of Perle as an aide to a legislator is somewhat misleading, for he and Jackson seldom wait until an issue is the direct subject of legislation to try to influence it.

"The Constitution provides that we're not involved only in giving consent," Jackson said in a recent interview. "It's advise and consent," he added, quoting the language of Article II of the Constitution, which describes the Senate's role in the making of treaties.

In fact, the practice of senatorial participation in the preparation and conduct of international negotiations is not a routine occurrance, Jackson and Perle have established themselves as active players in the policy-making process, a status rarely achieved on Capitol Hill.

Many members of the strategic community in Washington - the several hundred people who try to follow and influence arms control and arms procurement decisions - tend to attribute enormous influence to Perle and Jackson, perhaps more than they actually have. Those on the dovish end of the spectrum often feel desieged by the Jackson camp and by Perle personally. Ironically, Perle and Jackson seem to feel the same way about the doves. Perle personally talks as though he is constantly under attack.

Nevertheless, he is willing to talk about this accomplishments over the years, as are many if his friends, rivals and enemies. The Perle imprint can be seen in a number of Sen. Jackson's successful legislative and political maneuvers. For example:

Jackson's "qualification" to the 1972 interim agreement with the Soviet Union controlling both countries' deployments of offensive strategic weapons. Jackson didn't like that agreement, because it allowed the Soviets larger quantities of some weapons - to compensate for other American advantages, according to the Nixon administration.

He and Perle devised the "qualification" idea as a means of influencing future SALT negotiations. They proposed - and the Senate adopted - a statement asking the administration not to accept any future SALT agreement which limited the United States to an inferior number of weapons in any category.

The Senate vote approving this - 56 to 35 - "had a profound effect on the whole climate," Perle acknowledges with evident pride.

The "Jackson Amendment" to the 1974 trade bill, which withheld "most favored nation" status from socialist countries which restrict the right of their citizens to emigrate.

With his amendment, Jackson may have substantially altered the course of "detente." After it was adopted, the Soviet Union abrogated its 1972 trade agreement with the United States and reduced the number of Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate. The amendment has been a source of friction in the Soviet-American relationship ever since.

Perle and two other congressional aides were crucial backstage designers of the amendment; the lined up a majority in both houses of Congress to support it before the Nixon administration could organize any effective response.

The unexpectedly strong Senate opposition to the nomination of Paul C. Warnke as director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and chief American arms negotiator.

Jackson - with briefing books supplied by Perle and Fosdick - led the fight against Warnke in the Senators opposed Warnke as chief negotiator.)

Perle and his boss were pleased with this outcome, which they regard as a significant warning to Carter not to let views like Warnke's dominate arms control efforts in his administration. They also believe that Carter understood the warning and drafted his original SALT proposals to the Soviets accordingly. The Russians rejected those proposals brusquely, but Jackson and Perle applauded them.

An explicit statement from President Carter that his new, more restrictive policy on the sales of American arms to other nations would not preclude special consideration for Israel's needs for advanced U.S. weapons.

Jackson and Perle are as dedicated to Israel as they are to hard line on arms negotiations. Friends describe Perle as extraordinarily well-informed about Israeli affairs. Strong Convictions

HOW DO Jackson and his staff get these things done? According to many colleagues, the most important answers are brainpower and hard work. They learn their lessons.

This is particularly true in the arms field, where Jackson has repeatedly displayed a mastery of the subject that seems to impress many of his Senate colleagues, who now defer to his expertise. Several sources on the Hiss said Kissinger unwittingly strengthened Jackson's hand during the last several years by allowing Jackson and Perle to find potential loopholes or hazy language in his agreements with the Soviets. Through Jackson's hearings on SALT, according to one former Senate aide intimately involved in these matters, the senator has established "a brilliant reputation" for finding the weak spots in the U.S. position.

Jackson and his staff also enjoy the natural advantages accrue to the deeply convinced; they are true believers. Jackson has always been on the hard side of strategic issues. Fosdick, daughter of a well-known liberal cleric, the late Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, has articulated the hard line for a quarter century, first as a member of the policy planning staff in the State Department in the Truman administration. Like them, Perle sees his cause as just, his fears about Soviet power as justified, and reveals no lack of intellectual self-confidence.

One "central proposition" in his view of the world, Perle said, is that "the Soviets are inclined to regard military power as having political utility. If they are the preeminent military power, the expect to derive political benefits from that . . ." And Perle believes that current trends point toward Soviet military preeminence in the foreseeable future.

Perle's intellectual self-confidence is audible when the discusses the Jackson Amendment, which has not succeeded in increasing emigration from the Soviet Union and may actually have caused its reduction.

"We've always seen it as a long struggle," Perle said in an interview. "In the long run more people will come out [of the Soviet Union] because of it."

Jackson and Perle believe that, by introducing this question of human rights into the debate on American foreign policy three years ago, they prepared the political climate for President Carter's human rights offensive this year.

As to charges that they acted against the best interests of Soviet Jews, Perle replies that the amendment's initial failure was the fault of Kissinger and the Soviet government. In negotiations before the amendment was passed, Perle notes, Kissinger assured Jackson that the Soviets would accept and abide by it. That they later changed their mind, Perle said, isn't Jackson's fault.

Today, Jackson and his associates argue that the amendment will eventually be fruitful, if only the Soviets realize that it is not going to be removed. This argument, according to numerous sources, apparently would prevail today in the Senate were the Carter administration to seek to repeal the amendment.

Jackson might not have undertaken the fight against Warnke's nomination - which turned out to be a successful gambit - were it not for his conviction that Warnke represents the antithesis of Jackson's views on arms control. Friends said Jackson was pushed on by the belief that Carter was appointing only "arms controllers" to important national security jobs, ignoring the people recommended by his wing of the Democratic Party for jobs in this area.

Perle was with his boss throughout the flight. During Senate Armed Services Committee hearings at which Warnke testified, Perle busily passed notes, apparently suggesting questions, to Jackson - and to several other senators.

For Perle personally, power comes from information. He understands that the possessor of facts enters Washington's struggles with a great advantage.

He is not an adept politican in personal dealings with others. Some on the Hill find him arrogant, singleminded and difficult to deal with. "He's a loner," one said.

But Perle has a way of finding a crucial fact at a crucial moment - and then of making it widely known. Many specialists say Perle has remarkable sources throughout the executive branch, from the Pentagon and its intelligence agencies to the State Department and the CIA.

"I think that's true," Perle agrees. "There are always a number of people [inside the bureaucracy] who can't get a hearing" from their own superiors. He seems to know a good many of them.

These are frustrated bureaucrats - a common phenomenon, especially in the field of strategic and military policy, where many of the disaffected officials share Perle's hard-line opinions.

The strategic community has always been sharply divided between hard-liners and doves. Many of the former have shared a fear is as old as the arms race - a fear that America is congenitally vulnerable to Soviet cleverness and determination.

This view attracts a wide range of people, from apparent fanatics to reflective intellectuals. Some adherents are - like Perle - longtime students of the strategic balance. Others are old-fashioned, reflexive anti-communists. Still others were drawn into the loose alliance of hard-liners through the Israeli factor - the belief that a hard-line on all aspects of Soviet-American relations should logically accompany a strong position in support in Israel.

The theory here is that the Israelis defend American interests in the Middle East, whereas the Arabs are Soviet surrogates, and so support for Israel amounts to preserving American interests vis a vis the Russians. Another aspect of the Israeli factor involves arms; some American supporters of Israel feel they should encourage U.S. defense spending to insure that the United States has enough military equipment to sell or give the Israelis all that they need.

Not surprisingly, people who share the same world view and the same fears often work together - and share information. For hard-liners inside the bureaucracy, this often means working with Richard Perle. Officials of the last three administrations said in interviews that Perle often knows more about the state of the SALT talks than high-ranking officials directly involved.

The information Perle and Jackson accumulate can be used in closed or public hearings on the Hill, when Jackson can embarrass an official or warn him that some new gambit in negotiations with the Soviets is already known to them. Or the information can be leaked strategically.

Perle is a familiar caller to the reporters who cover national security affairs. He doesn't wait to be asked a question if he has something he wants a reporter to know. The Evans-Novak "Connection"

AMONG specialists in the field, Perle is widely thought to have special access to one journalistic outlet, the Evans and Novak column. "Jesus," said one member of Congress, "I can't tell you the number of things Perle has told me that a few days later showed up in Evans and Novak. That's happened half a dozen times in the last year."

Evans and Novak do trumpet a hard-line view on strategic issues, and many of their columns contain facts or allegations that have not appeared elsewhere. (If Perle has had influence on the column's strategic views, however, he has not affected the Evans-Novak stance on the Middle East, which is hostile to Israel by Perle's standards.)

Several sources in Congress and the executive brance who regard Perle as an opponent said that he and his allies make masterful use of the Evans and Novak column. One congressional aide who tries to counter Perle's and Jackson's influence on arms issues said the Evans and Novak "connection" helps Perle create a "murky, threatening atmosphere" in his dealings with others.

Former colleagues of Henry Kissinger and several other Ford administration officials suggested that Evans and Novak were - whether wittingly or not - used by a "cabal" involving Perle and two others: John F. Lehman Jr., deputy director of the Arms Control agency during the Ford administration, and Lt. Gen. Edward Rowney, since 1972 the Joint Chief's representative on the SALT delegation. Lehman and Perle are close personal friends.

Several sources spoke darkly of this trio and its purported influence in persistent efforts to undermine Kissinger's SALT initiatives. The most important single public event these sources attributed to them was an Evans and Novak column published in December, 1975. That column may have changed the course of history.

It charged the President Ford's "national security bureaucracy" was drafting SALT proposals that included "major concessions to Moscow in order to save a SALT II agreement at almost any cost." The column concluded that Kissinger was about to fly off to Moscow to offer these dangerous concessions and that only the then-new Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, could stop him. Rumsfeld's actions could "decide the fate of SALT II and influence the future of the country," Evans and Novak wrote.

Soon afterward, according to informed officials, Rumsfeld did intervene with Ford and blocked a Kissinger mission to Moscow that December. The delay allowed hard-liners to muster support for their opposition to the compromises Kissinger favored. By the time Kissinger got to Moscow in january, 1976 - with Ronald Reagan's shadow already large on the Republican Party horizon - Gerald Ford was not interested in Kissinger's compromise proposals.

So, this argument goes, there was no SALT II agreement last year. Ford and his allies have said since that this fact may have cost him the election to Jimmy Carter. People like Perle would reply that the country was spared a potentially dangerous arms agreement that favored the Soviets. And Perle, certainly, was not unhappy about the prospect of a new President and a new secretary of state.

Was Perle involved in that column? It couldn't have come from him, he said after looking it up last week, because it contained information that was new to him at the time.

Perle acknowledges that he talks to Rowland Evans and Robert Novak are friends. But Perle would not discuss his relationship to specific coulumns they have written.

(Novak is out of the country. Evans, in accordance with standard journalistic practice, said he would not discuss anything to do with the column's sources.)

Perle is a tough fighter. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) recalled in an interview that, when he proposed a compromise to the Jackson amendment on emigration, Perle lost his temper with one of Nelson's aides and threatened to campaign personally against the senator in Wisconsin's Jewish community.

Several reporters recalled receiving angry phone calls from Perle in which he lambasted them for writing something he disliked or found erroneous. "But not recently," said one. "Richard has calmed down." The Background

ONE THING is certain; Perle is not hindered by selfdoubts. One friend compared him to a Jesuit or a Bolshevik - so certain is he of his views. "He's almost invariably very effective even when he's saying outrageous things," this friend said.

Perle wasn't always so certain. He began reading about strategic matters as a high school student. At Beverly Hills (Calif.) High School he befriended the daughter of Albert Wohlstetter then at the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Corporation, now at the University of Chicago, one of the philosopher-kings of hard-line strategic thinking. Joan invited Perle home to swim in the Wohlstetter pool, where he met her father and discussed strategic issues with him. The senior Wohlstetter gave Perle a copy of one of his books, which is how it all began.

The way Perle describes the impact of reading Wohlstetter explains a good deal about the sort of person he is. The more he read by Wohlstetter and others of his school, Perle recalled, the more impressed he was. "They undid what I had previously believed" about strategic issues, Perle said. Until he did that reading, his views on these subject had been close to those of the dovish Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.

Perle graduated from the University of Southern California, then went to the London School of Economics, where he began but never completed a doctorate. he worked for a few months in a think tank set up by Westinghouse, then came to Washington in 1969, at Wohlstetter's invitation, to help campaign in favor of the anti-ballistic missile (ABM).

While here working on that project, Perle was introduced to Jackson. The senator - himself a staunch supporter of the ABM system - was looking for someone who could join his staff to work on strategic issues, and Perle struck his as just right. The idea struck Perle's fancy, too, and he took the job. By all accounts, they quickly fell into an intimate working relationship that they have maintained ever since. "I have had him in a very special role here," Jackson said in an interview. "He has my full confidence."

He is not entirely content in the Senate. A friend says he doesn't feel as powerful as some think he is. According to this source, Perle would have liked an important job in the Pentagoh in a new Democratic administration, but quickly realized that he would not fit into the kind of Pentagon Carter wanted.

Several other Senate aides said in interviews that, despite their past successes, Jackson and Perle are not necessarily the dominant players in strategic policy now.

Jackson's ability - with Perle's invaluable help - to frustrate Kissinger on SALT during 1975 and 1976 can be misinterpreted, according to numerous officials involved. Though they were effective then, Jackson and Perle could not blocked Kissinger's SALT II proposals without enormous help from Rumsfeld and Reagan, among others.

Their past accomplishments have provoked a number of other senators to bone up on strategic issues. Senate aides predict that Jackson will face serious debate in the future from Sens John C. Culver (D-Iowa), Gary Hart (D-Colo.). Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and other who are more sympathetic to arms control compromises.

But Jackson is the past master, and the administration has already acknowledged his strong position in the SALT debate. The President is assiduously cultivating Jackson - he has even invited the Jackson family to join the Carters for a family supper at the White House.

And Perle is still very much in the fight. These days, he is angry at Carter for apparently moving away from the tough SALT proposals he made to the Soviets in March.

"Once again we're behaving in our congenital manner," Perle said the other day, breaking the filter off a French, black tobacco cigarette before lighting it. "We've been showing our enxiety about getting an agreement," instead of matching the Russians' patience with patience ofour own.

Richard Perle, at least, won't lose his patience.