To protect themselves from the dishonest and the disloyal, the American people have created a federal law-enforcement complex that has grown beyond precise measurements. Former Attorney General William Saxbe has estimated that it costs the taxpayers $12 billion a year.

But the ugly truth is that the federal government is losing the war against organized crime.

By all accounts, organized crime not only is flourishing but, moreover, is extending its tentacles from the underworld into legitimate commerce. The mob controls most of the rackets from gambling to drug smuggling, then uses the illegal profits to purchase banks, insurance companies and other businesses.

This situation does not reflect favorably on the law-enforcement complex. The federal agents, however, show little embarrassment over their failure to curtail the mob.

The more menacing organized crime becomes, the more money they require to fight it. So at appropriations time, they point to the growing problem not as evidence of their incompetence but as justification for bigger budgets.

Yet the federal bureaucracy, as the troubled Saxbe pointed out, is already crawling with investigators. They do not, however, seem to be investigating the right people. The lords of the underworld are doing a thriving business in drugs, pornography, gambling and other illegal enterprises, with little interference.

This raises some obvious questions: Where are those hordes of government gumshoes? Why can't they get results?

They are engaged largely, Saxbe told us, "taking in each other's wash." That is, they exchange confidences, they read one another's reports. The same information is kept in constant circulation. They also keep an eye on the headlines. Once a person is implicated in a public scandal, investigators from a dozen federal agencies pounce upon him like a wolf pack.

The federal pack is also inclined to pursue the easy cases and resist the difficult investigations. While Lyndon Johnson was in the White House, for example, he noted that drug addiction was foremost among the causes of the soaring crime rate; men enslaved by drugs use the gun, knife and yoke to get the money to finance their habits. Johnson thought that since the FBI had more manpower than any other enforcement agency, it should be enlisted in the fight against drug abuse. He discussed his idea with J. Edgar Hoover.

But the late FBI director - too formidable a public figure even for Presidents to challenge - had no intention of risking his reputation in so uncertain an imbroglio as the war against drugs. He politely declined the opportunity and continued to engage his agents in more statistically satisfying pursuits, such as tracing stolen automobiles.

This attitude leaves most federal investigators with a lot of time on their hands. But if they are to avoid the hard-to-crack organized-crime cases and still earn their salaries, they must investigate someone. This could be almost anyone who deals with the government or makes out a tax return.

Thus the power of investigation, which is supposed to be used for the good of the citizens, is often used against the citizens. The contractor who won't accept the government terms, the taxpayer who contests a ruling, the individual who trips over an unnoticed regulation may find himself hounded by gumshoes.

Although most federal agents try to be fair and most agencies don't condone coercive investigations, the bureaucratic system tends to uphold the abusive. They usually are able to summon the massive weight of the U.S. government behind their actions. Most agency heads, unfamiliar with the details of a case, are inclined to accept the judgment of their subordinates. Investigators are held sacrosanct in many federal bureaus. Once they start blood-hounding a case, only the boldest official would dare to intervene.

"It isn't safe to stick your nose into an investigation," an official has admitted to us. "What if the guy turns out to be guilty? The next thing you know, the inspectors will be trying to link you to the case."

The federal government's 2.8 million employees, more than others, feel the breath of the investigator on the necks. They have been subjected to psychological tests, psychiatric interviews, lie detectors, loyalty oaths, background investigations, financial disclosure forms, and a host of regulations for speaking, writing and even thinking.

The scrutiny that is applied to federal employees, moreover, is increasingly brought to bear upon private citizens. A government agency is incapable of dealing with a member of the public, it seems, without demanding his complete life history.

The crime lords, meanwhile, are getting away with every crime in the books, including murder. The Justice Department has put together the story of muscle and murder from the reports of 24 federal enforcement agencies. It adds up to a picture of underworld savagery that makes the bloodies TV chiller seem mild.

In these mob slayings, arrests are rare, convictions are even rarer. Yet the truth is that most of the murderers are known. A federal agent has told us that he knows one man, still walking free, who has been responsible for 32 "hits." The agent has heard of other hit men, longer in the trade of death, who have notched up as many as 50 murders.

"These men kill," he said, "as casually as you would swat a fly."

Yet thousands of federal investigators are too busy snooping into the trivial affairs of their fellow citizens to do anything about it.