THERE WERE UNTIL recently five Americans, all convicted of espionage 10 or more years ago, known to be languishing in Cuban prisons. Then last December Reps. Federick Richmond (D-N.Y.) and Richard Noland (D-Minn.) intervened directly with Fidel Castro, pleading that the release of these unfortunate, long-punished men would serve Cuban-American relations well. Frank Emmick, 63 and a heart patient, a shelf-described frog-leg salesman convicted in 1964 of being the CIA station chief (he denies it), was soon released - a bitter as well as broken man.

Last month Mr. Emmick held a press conference here under the auspices of the American Security Council. He meant, he explained, to keep a promise made to other prisoners - the four Americans and, by his count, 40,000 Cubans - to tell of the horrors of life in Cuba. This he did, with feeling. Subsequently, Rep. Richmond conveyed to Mr. Emmick (and to the CIA) his view that such accounts, however accurate and understandable, risk jeopardizing continuing efforts to obtain the liberty of the other four Americans. If released prisoners are to make propaganda against Cuba, then Havana can hardly be expected to release more. So it is that Mr. Richmond is now under strident attack from the anti-communist right for trying to "cover up" Fidel Castro's crimes.

There the matter rests, with an aggrieved ex-prisoner speaking from the heart and a concerned congressman speaking from the head, and there the matter should rest, unresolved. Given all that now is known of CIA activities in Cuba, accused American spies - as distinguished from Cubans imprisoned for the politics - may not be the best witnesses to bolster the anti-communist cause. Mr. Emmick nonetheless enjoys the right of any American citizen, since he's free, to speak his piece. Mr. Richmond's responsibility as a public official to act on his best judgement of what will help the four other Americans is equally beyond cavil. We hope the Cubans pay careful attention to them both.