A TEXAS-BASED company called Oil Field Security Consultants recently notified potential corporate clients that it had its "own SWAT team of professionals who can be deployed on location to anywhere in the world within 24 hours." Another company, based in London, wired the major U.S. oil companies that "we stand ready . . . [as] a last resort . . . [to] conduct 'search and destory' missions" against those who would harm company property, lives or operations.

The business of countering terrorists has never been better. Approximately 40 counterterrorist firms offer an impressive panoply of services. Some provide protection through chauffeur training and electronic perimeter defenses. Firms may also supply information on specific terrorists and even negotiate with terrorists for the release of kidnaped company personnel. In addition, counterterrorist businesses may assume a more aggressive role -- assisting in the identification of terrorists, engaging in paramilitary operations to release kidnap victims and ferreting out terrorists in preemptive missions.

From 1968 to October 1980, between one-third and one-half of terrorist attacks abroad were directed against business executives and commercial property. There have been about 7,000 overseas terrorist incidents since 1970. During that same decade, multinational corporations paid $150-250 million in ransom. U.S. corporations have been the target of many of these attacks, suffering 25 percent of all kidnapings, explosions and bombing incidents in 1979. During the last decade, U.S. companies paid $125 million in ransom. Throughout Western Europe, South America and especially Central America, U.S.-owned and -managed firms are encountering increased terrorist activity. Since the success rate for terrorist efforts is extraordinarily high -- more than 70 percent of the time ransom is paid or political prisoners released or both -- terrorism appears to be a growth industry.

Yet if a multinational business does negotiate with terrorists and ransoms a kidnaped employe, it may be subject to other penalties. In March 1980, five years after Exxon Corp. paid $14.2 million to Argentine terrorists in return for the release of an abducted executive, a stockholder lawsuit was filed demanding that officials responsible for the payment reimburse the company for a decision taken "beyond the lawful powers and the authority of Exxon."

In Colombia, a counterterrorist firm -- Control Risks -- that negotiated with kidnapers on behalf of corporations had its operatives jailed. In Venezuela, Owens-Illinois had its property expropriated. Italian magistrates who have uncovered corporate dealings with kidnapers have forzed the assets of the companies involved. Recently, Beatrice Foods were sued for $185 million by an employe who had been held in a South American cave for eight months during 1976 while Control Risks bargained his ransom down from $5 million to $450,000.

Faced with government inability or unwillingness to cope with the growing problem of terrorism, many multinational corporations have come to view terrorism as part of the cost of doing business. In fact, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service allows some ransom payments to be deducted as business expenses.

To some extent, corporations expect that after they have paid a ransom they will not be bothered by terrorists again. Paying one ranson is a means of insuring the company's interests against future terrorist incidents. Other companies see terrorism as a continuing business expense and are prepared to accept the demands of terrorists even to the point of breaking the law. More than one executive has stated that if local law prohibits ransom payments his company will make a deal in other countries, ignoring customs rules if necessary.

Even if the government does take action against terrorists, it may not resolve the matter to the satisfaction of the corporations. A company's priority is to rescue its employe and pay as little ransom as possible. The concern of the government, in contrast, is to detain or kill the terrorist, with the fate of the victim not infrequently a secondary consideration.

Given this situation, many companies have found it necessary to enlist the services of security firms established specifically for the purpose of helping corporations cope with terrorist incidents. Because companies are usually not experienced in dealing with terrorist threats, these firms -- staffed largely by individuals formerly involved in government covert operations -- provide necessary protective and negotiating services. They also undertake to lessen the financial burden of terrorism for the companies. For example, Motorola Teleprogram's Executive Protection Manual stresses the responsibility of corporations to avoid draining profits by spending assets on terrorism.

Most firms in the international security business were established recently. One of the oldest, Control Risks, was organized in Britain in 1974 as a division of the Hogg Robinson insurance group. Since then, it has been involved in 60 hostage negotiations and claims to have saved its clients more than $10 million. Control Risks charges $500-800 a day plus expenses while negotiating victim releases. The fees for these services can be as high as those of Payne International of Miami, which charges up to $3,000 a day plus expenses.

The security services not only negotiate with terrorists, but they also maintain extensive information files. Risks International claims that its records on individuals are more complete than those of the CIA and can be displayed on the simplest home computer. For a $960 yearly fee, Risks International will identify suspected terrorists at home or abroad and, if needed, negotiate with abductors. Another firm, International Management and Resource Corp., claims to have the most comprehensive and up-to-date file of its kind in private hands, containing 10,000 items concerning terrorism and political violence throughout the world.

It is difficult to judge the effectiveness of these security firms in countering terrorism. The fact of their existence implies that they have succeeded, at least on occasion, when government security agencies have failed. Yet the security firms usually keep the procedures and results of their previous operations secret. Advertising on the basis of past operations could provide terrorists with information needed to resist the efforts of these firms.

Luring kidnapers to capture by the police is acceptable; making a citizen's arrest of foreign nationals using substantial firepower in a foreign country is another matter. In countering terrorism, the firms may employ paramilitary forces that usurp the role of the host country's police. For example, when one multinational firm's senior officer in Latin America was threatened with kidnaping, an International Security Group team, disguised as his family, moved into the executive's house. When the suspected kidnapers attempted to gain entry into the house, the security team opened fire and captured eight of them.

Not all private security firms offer questionalble services. Designing strategies and technologies for chauffeur training, perimeter defense and risk analysis are merely common sense. However, when security firms undertake actions normally reserved to public authority, they become a problem for public policy.

Ultimately, the rise of private security firms is the result of feeble municipal police or of police cooperation with terrorists. If the civil order of the host country were secure, there would be little need for private security firms and less chance of abuses by them. In the United States, the rate of capture and successful prosecution of kidnapers is about 90 percent. The average rate of apprehension overseas is much lower: Of all terrorists abroad, 80 percent escape death or capture. Of those arrested, less than half serve prision terms.

A means of curbing the abuses of private counterterrorist firms would be through the founding of a universally respected international organization that would offer reputable security services to subscribers for a fee. Indeed, the establishment of an international information clearinghouse to combat terrorism is a fairly common suggestion within the private security industry. Such an information clearinghouse, however, would endanger the civil liberties of individuals by peddling the names of suspected terrorists.

The matter of paramilitary operations undertaken by private security firms is the issue most amendable to regulation. Participation in operations of this type is essentially a mercenary service and should be legally treated as such.

On Dec. 4, 1980, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution authorizing negotiations on a treaty outlawing mercenary activities. Even if such a treaty is successfully negotiated and signed, it is unlikely that it would be ratified by the Senate. A treaty of this type could be interpreted as proscribing Jewish Americans from volunterring to serve in the Israeli armed forces. Similarly, it might be seen as a bar to Greek Americans and others who are sometimes required to do military srvice if they wish to claim an inheritance to the country of their ancestors.

In the absence of an international treaty, a remedy may be found in U.S. domestic law. Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code prohibits participation in any group that takes armed action against foreign nationals or foreign property within the United States and abroad, except under conditions of war. It also forbids the rendering of any form of assistance to "armed expenditionaries."

It will not be easy to design and implement the reforms needed to control effectively counterterrorist security firms. Yet reforms are important. Unless common action is taken soon against terrorists and counterterrorists alike, a growing violence by both could signal the beginning of a new international feudalism.