ON VALENTINE'S DAY of 1979, the State Department's operations center was unusually chaotic. There was an incessant ringing of phones, people screaming across the room for guidance, insistent Teletype machines telling officials that events were becoming uncontrollable, that time was working against them.

The deparment was faced with three simultaneous crises that evening -- a civil war in Chad, the first siege of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by Islamic revolutionaries, and the kidnapping of U.S. Ambassador Adolph (Spike) Dubs in Afghanistan. The bedraggled officials were most worried by the immediate threat to the life of Dubs, who was being held in a hotel room by unidentified Afghan terrorists. They were demanding the release of their colleagues in prison.

For three hours, the State Department had been trying frantically to develop an ad hoc position for dealing with the terrorists. The operations room was in regular contact with the White House, the CIA, the National Security Council and others while phone calls and cables flew back and forth between Washington and Kabul. What were the actual demands? Who were the terrorists? What was the Afghan government's position toward negotiating with the terrorists? What influence, if any, could we exert on the government?

At one point, a critical call came in from Kabul. Afghan troops and Soviet advisers were outside the Kabul hotel. The troops were poised to storm the room where Dubs was being held. Should they attack?

Astonishingly, the American official on the phone said yes -- assualt. As he hung up, a dispute broke out in the operations room. They can't attack, said another official. Dubs is likely to be killed. Nothing will be accomplished.

An urgent message was flashed immediately to our people in Kabul: Under no circumstances -- repeat no circumstances -- should the room be assaulted . But it was too late. The Afghans had gone in. Ambassador Dubs was dead.

There is an understandable reluctance in the government to talk much privately, let alone publicly, about this and other errors -- indeed, the persistent pattern of errors -- made by well-meaning officials in dealing with terrorism at home and abroad.

In the Dubs tragedy, in fact, the State Deparment let everybody -- including some other government officials -- believe that the Soviet Union, rather than the United States, had ordered the precipitous attack. As a result, little in the anti-terrorist area changed after that fatal mistake. Certainly no high official suffered. On the contrary, some of the same officials responsible for the Dubs affair were there later to play similarly misguided roles in our profound mishandling of the 444-day Iranian crisis as well -- and were promoted or otherwise honored as a result.

Now the Reagan administration has said it is determined to crack down on terrorism. That is certainly commendable. But tough talk by itself will not accomplish much.

The unpleasant reality is that we do not have a serious anti-terrorist policy anymore; it was left in a shambles in Tehran after being ignored for years anyway. Even if we did have a policy, moreover, we don't have the professionals or the organization capable of carrying one out. The first crackdown required is on ourselves.

Perhaps it could begin in the Oval Office. It must be impressed on the president to distance himself as much as possible from future terrorist incidents. This is something President Carter and his closest advisers never seemed capable of learning.

In March 1977, for example, when a bank robber in Indianapolis took a police captain hostage, wiring a sawed-off shotgun around the captain's neck, the president agreed to the robber's demand and jumped into the middle of the fray. The police captain eventually was released, but Carter had set an unfortunate precedent by making it clear that he was more than willing to put the presidency itself on the line.

Although the public was not aware of it, Carter had also wanted to assume control that same month during the Hanafi Muslim seige of B'nai B'rith headquarters in Washington. It was only after a White House aide relayed repeated warnings about the serious consequences this would have that Carter relented. Later that year, of course, Carter could not resist taking personal charge of our response to the Ayatollah Khomeini, despite urgings again that he not turn the presidency into a hostage.

The natural advice to any president, then, it to let others handle day-to-day matters in any terrorist situation. One problem: The government doesn't have too many "others" around, and certainly no single organization or experienced individuals responsible for dealing with terrorism.

This was a central thrust of a Presidential Review Memorandum prepared in 1977 by the State Department, the CIA, the FBI, the Defense Department and the Federal Aviation Administration. In its wisdom, the National Security Council reduced the several hundred pages of this memorandum, known as PRM-30, to a page and a half, and an NSC novitiate decided that "the issue of terrorism was being overdramatized."

It is certainly important not to be excessively alarmist about the prospect of terrorist outbreaks at home or abroad. But the grim fact, according to the State Department's count, is that there were 7,300 incidents of international terrorism between January 1968 and October 1980. Of these, 2,700 or more than a third, were directed at American citizens or installations. In the process, 173 Americans were killed and 970 were injured. Tell the Americans who recently returned from Tehran how "overdramatized" that memorandum was.

With most recommendations of PRM-30 and of individual professionals in the area rejected, the government's ability to deal with terrorism remained modest at best.

For example, we did not, and still do not, have the caliber of counter-terrorist strike forces of an Israel, a West Germany or a Britain, as tragically demonstrated in the Iranian dessert. Granted, it can be dangerous to want to pull the military trigger too quickly, to emulate former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who could almost always be counted on to recommend the use of force. We will have to restrain a desire to prove a point, to assert our dominance, in the wake of Iran. But having a credible military option available is nonetheless essential in many cases of terrorism.

What did result from the memorandum was the establishment of two groups to deal with terrorist crises. One, with 20 members, represented any agency you could think of with even a marginal relationship to terrorism, including the Agriculture Department of the old Health, Education and Welfare Department. The other group, an executive committee chaired by the State Department and including the CIA, and the FBI and the Pentagon, reported directly to the National Security Council and, ostensibly, to more senior officials.

But there were few people trained to deal with such crises in any of these agencies, and surely none that I or any other professional knew of at the NSC. In any case, what these groups ended up doing was trying to abitrate bureaucratic battles over jurisdictions and resources.

If an American plane is hijacked overseas, for example, who would be in charge? The FAA? The State Department? The host government? The NSC? If all had some responsibility, how would they work together during a crisis? This type of legitimate concern consumed a great deal of the groups' time. But even these questions, along with other basic issues, still had not been resolved when I left the State Department in late 1979, and so far as I am aware not very much has changed since.

In fairness, it is questionable whether these groups, even if peopled with the most knowledgeable and capable individuals and working with firm blueprints, could make much difference by themselves. I say this because of a phenomenon I have witnessed now in three administrations: In any terrorist crisis of international proportions, few senior officials turn seriously for advice to those they have chosen to provide it.

That may merely sound like sour grapes, a typical complaint heard from many parts of the government; I will let others judge that. But if you have seen a senior official order the precipitous Afghan assault that resulted in Ambassador Dubs' death; if you have watched other senior officials fail to approve some basic precautions against terrorism and then freeze when a crisis arises; if you have heard some of the hasty ideas suggested during crises -- then it might be easier to grasp the need for cooler, nonpolitical counsel.

It takes no great wisdom to know, for example, that a terrorist outbreak in one area tends to trigger similar outbreaks elsewhere. We have seen this pattern at home and abroad. The Indianapolis bank robber's demands were followed in two days by the Hanafi Muslim siege in the District. The taking of our embassy in Iranian was followed by embassy attacks elsewhere.

Yet senior officials frequently refuse to recognize the contagious nature of terror and to take serious steps -- particularly reducing embassy staffs and getting other Americans out of likely trouble spots -- in anticipation of this. Instead, they generally prefer to indulge in wishful thinking, seeing the latest outbreak as merely a passing "aberration" and the foriegn leader involved as simply "insane."

Iran is only the best known of these cases. In that instance, not only officials in Washington but others in Iran urged after the first, one-day taking of the embassy in March 1979 -- when Ambassador William Sullivan and others remarkably negotiated their own safe release -- that embassy staff be withdrawn. In June that year, when the president was considered admitting the shah into this country for medical treatment, he asked his National Security Council if anybody could guarantee that the embassy staff in Iran would not be taken hostage as a result. But those senior advisers refused to face that prospect and in effect did nothing.

Once the embassy was taken again in November, U.S. officials did little more than place other Mideast embassies on perfunctory alert. Within weeks there was an attack on the U.S. embassy in Pakistan, where several lives were lost, followed by a government-inspired siege of our embassy in Libya. Shortly afterward U.S. embassador Diego Asencio in Colombia was taken hostage and held for 60 days.

High officials professed surprise in each case, even though they had been urged beforehand to get people out and to sharply increase security for those who remained. I recall one senior State Department offical in particular, after the fall of the shah and the two sieges of the embassy, raising his voice in a plaintive cry and asking, "What else could we have done?"

In terrorist negotiations themselves, these senior officials too often showed little patience for the painstaking work involved, relying instead on the instincts that brought them to their positions of power. The Carter administration usually turned to a brief list of people -- for example, Muhammad Ali, Andrew Young and Ramsey Clark -- as potential intermediaries, usually patronizing choices of citizens who were unlikely to be seen by the other side as commanding sufficient power and respect. Terrorist negotiations are not affirmative action programs or compatibility contests.

Senior State Department officials were cautioned, for example, that Clark was the wrong person to send to Tehran right after the November seizure, that Khomeini would not take him as a credible intermidiary. When the officals decided to send him anyway, an important negotiating card was lost. Clark subsequently went on his own, against the president's orders, and proved a deep embarrassment to the country.

Each of these shortcomings needs correcting if we are to deal better with terrorism -- persuading the president to avoid personal involvement; sharpening our special military strike force; creating an organization of specially trained, nonpolitical crisis managers with clear jurisdictions and well laid contingency plans; taking necessary precautions wherever feasible; and making sure that top officials themselves, who will make the ultimate decisions, become much more familiar with the dynamics of terrorism.

It would also help, moreover, if we had a clear and reliable policy toward terrorism, beyond declaring our dtermination to fight it. Remarkable as it may seem, at present we have no such position.

Some may still recall that in March 1973, after Palestinian guerrillas assassinated U.S. Ambassador Cleo A. Noel Jr. in Khartoum, President Nixon declared that U.S. policy was simply neither to negotiate with nor pay ransoms to terrorists. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger modified that to permit negotiations -- but strictly to insure the well-being of American hostages.

The Carter administration went further down the negotiating road, letting it be known that some concessions could also be made.

Thus in the Hanafi Muslim siege, the showing of a movie was halted at the terrorists' demand. When Uganda's Idi Amin ordered 240 Americans to appear before him with their property in early 1977, the administration moved toward blocking delivery of sophisticated U.S. electronics equipment for Uganda and of Amin's personel jet, which was being remodeled in Georgia. Part of the resolution of that crisis involved the release of both the equipment and the plane.

Similarly, Ambassador Asencio was released in Bogota only after certain "private money" was paid to the terrorists. It is not against U.S. policy for private citizens to pay for the safe release of a hostage, but the line between private and government action has become increasingly thin. It is not difficult to imagine a terrorist whose ransom demand has been met concluding that the legitimacy of claim has been substantiated.

Finally, in the Iranian crisis, no intricate legal provisions can mask the concessions granted or the essential weakness of the U.S. position. In effect, we have precluded any moral or legal claims against Iran for its horrid crimes by assigning final arbitration of disputes to a body of questionable jurisdiction and legitimacy. The Iranians forced us to accept what no other terrorists have been able to accomplish: recognition of kidnapping and blackmail as legitimate instruments of international diplomacy.

That does not leave us with much of a policy.