THE KGB DOESN'T like Washington.

Sure, our capital is a good place to have agents, and the KGB has had its share.They've roamed the Pentagon, sat in the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, worked briefly in the National Security Agency, occupied a State Department desk.

But Washington really isn't terribly comfortable for the KGB. The Federal Triangle has more intelligence, counterintelligence and security personnel per acre than Berlin or possibly even Moscow: myriads of FBI officials, tens of thousands of CIA, DIA and NSA officers, thousands more from the armed services, State and Treasury.

So the KGB really loves New York. The Big Apple is ideal for secret meetings -- of lovers, crooks or spies. It's congested and anonymous, polyglot and polychrome. No face, no accent, no costume stands out.

Even in the good old days before World War II, when spying was an amateur sport carried on by a few underground American communists, Manhattan was the hub of espionage operations against the Washington target. Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley came down by train from New York, dropped in on their "friends" in the District, collected their take (from State Department cables to documents from the Aberbeen Proving Grounds) and took the train back to the Big Apple.

When Col. Boris Bykov insisted on a personal meeting with members of Chambers' Washington net, they were asked to meet him in Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan. When Donald Maclean, one of the famous Cambridge trio, had something to report from his perch in the British embassy in the 1940s, he made regular trips to New York to turn over his material to his Manhattan handler.

The KGB is particularly allergic to handing over classified U.S. documents in Washington. In 1973 Air Force Sgt. James D. Woods traveled to New York with a batch of classified documents in the trunk of his rented car, passed them over to his handler, an official of the Soviet embassy in Washington, and was arrested at their rendezvous in Queens.

New York's main attraction for the KGB is its excellent terrain for the mechanics of secret communications -- for signals and dead-drops as well as secret meetings.

Signals, used to call an agent to a meeting or to service a dead-drop, are normally inconspicuous graphic marks -- a chalk stroke, a piece of adhesive tape. Thousands of spots in Manhattan have been used: subway entrances street-level billboards, sidewalk construction tunnels, Light poles.

The KGB has an almost canine fondness for lampposts; normally fixed on the outside edge of the sidewalk pavement; a signal can be seen equally well by an agent out for a stroll or by someone sitting on the right side of a passing vehicle. Signals can also be transmitted from one public pay phone to another by the number of rings.

Signaling in Washington is a more difficult enterprise We have a paucity of lampposts. The number of public pay phones outside downtown is increasing, but they are far apart and rarely enclosed. Our subway entrances don't lend themselves to graffiti. With the construction boom sidewalk hoardings have become commonplace, but most of them retain their pristine blankness, and even a small mark might catch the eye of a passing FBI man out to lunch.

The crux of agent operations is in the selection of safe sites for a dead-drop or a personal meeting, and here New York is superior not only to Washington but to London and Bonn. If New York is Moscow-on-the-Hudson, Washington is Minsk-on-the-Potomac.

Dead-drops are the safest form of exchanging information between an agent and his KGB handler. The drop can be loaded by a KGB officer or a sailor-courier from Moscow with coded instructions on paper or microfilm, or by an agent with the documents he has collected, or with a report on tasks he has been assigned. Drop sites must be clearly designated, easily accessible and least open to hostile observation.

KGB drops litter New York's landscape: under brushes in parks, under a bench on Riverside Drive, in stone steps in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, in a hole between sidewalk and wall on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, in public toilets in bars, hotels and museums.

The KGB's foundness for lampposts is matched by its use of the pillars, or upright metal posts, that carry an elevated train or platform. The magnetic capsule, or limpet has modernized the dead-drop. Attached to the pillar at shoulder height at night, and retrieved in the dark a small container isn't likely to be detected by anyone.

Limpets have been attached to hundreds of pillars from the northern end of Seventh Avenue in Manhattan to the more distant stretches of the Long Island Railroad in Queens. Queens is a favorite area for limpets: under the elevated bridge at 69th Street, on Astoria Boulevard under the more distant stretches of the Long Island Railroad.

Though drops are safer, personal meetings also are sometimes essential, and a Moscow training lecture of the early 1960s laid down some ground rules for meetings agents in New York or Washington. The best New York sites, it said, are in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and certain areas of Manhattan: near Columbia University, adjoining Riverside Park, and east of Lexington Avenue. To be avoided: Harlem (white faces stand out); the ''squalid'' Chinese quarter where a "properly dressed person" is conspicuous; locations near the United Nations or permanent missions to the U.N. or near large banks and jewelry stores. The area between 34th and 42nd streets is too congested and Staten Island, a cul de sac, is also out.

No street corner in Manhattan, no neighborhood restaurant or movie house in Brooklyn or Queens, no subway stop can be ruled out. The known metropolitan meeting sites extend from the Greystone railroad station in Yonkers to Evergreen Cemetery in Queens. They include all the parks, a dozen theater lobbies in Manhattan, the Lincoln Road exit of the Prospect Park station of the BMT in Brooklyn, the "smoking room" of a movie theater in Flushing.

What does Washington have to offer in secret sites for drops or meetings?

The 1960s Moscow lecture succinctly highlihts its deficiencies: "... the organization and utilization of agent communications in Washington are full of difficulties because of the city's small size, its limited number of public places, no subways, and an inadequate public transportation system, especially in the suburbs." It places certain meeting sites out of bounds: "the central part of the city," the main streets, areas where foreign embassies are located, "near military objectives," in "the Negro District."

But our greatest deficiency is in parks. The ones we have are, for the most part, too small. Lafayette Park is useful only for demonstrators and orators, Dumbarton.Oaks for nature lovers. Many parks are closed at night. Rock Creek Park appears at first glance ideal for secret caches, but it is not flat enough. Picture a Soviet second Secretary stumbling in the dark along its hillsides trying to locate a hollow in a tree or a hole under a bush.

Moreover, we don't have enough elevated structures, and Those we now have rest on concrete pillars not meant for limpets. We don't have enough out-of-the-way restaurants and deserted waterfronts, or movie lobbies and movie houses with matinees.

There is an art in selecting drop and meeting sites (they are often assigned by Moscow). There is a greater art in visiting them undetected. Both arts favor New York.

New York is the easiest place in the world to throw off a tail. There are hundreds of locales for eluding surveillance: not only corner drugstores with two entrances, but office buildings with scores of floors and banks of elevators and gigantic department stores with dozens of entrances, escalators and elevators (anyone can throw off a tail in Macy's). And there are the narrow crosstownstreets with loading bays, takeout food shops and office building lobbies to slip into for a moment to watch who passes.

Ivan leaves his U.N. office, walks to the subway entrance at Lexington and 33rd, rides uptown to Grand Central, crosses the platform to catch an express to 14th Street, crosses again to take an express to 72nd Street, takes a downtown local (he is in no hurry), and gets off at 14th Street. He takes the east side exit, walks east on 12th Street, and falls in step with a man in a gray topcoat at the next corner. The two walk downtown for two blocks chatting. Before parting they exchange small manila envelopes from their inside jacket pockets.

This game is played in every capital with a complex subway system -- London, Paris, Mexico City. But it cannot be played in Washington.

Metro's construction has done little to enhance a KGB officer's ability to throw off an underground tail. It has only a few lines, only a few stations for a line change, not enough trains and often half-empty cars and stations. What is a KGB man to do? Change from the Blue Line to the Red Line at Metro Center? Dead-end at National Airport? Double back to the Stadium/Armory stop?

Washington's KGB officers face the same problem with playing highway tag.

In the 1950s the KGB in Manhattan joined the flight to the suburbs. Access to the countryside is easy from midtown Manhattan, the heart of a network of tunnels, bridges and highways leading into Long Island and the corners of three states. Once beyond the tollkeepers, the road is open. Even diplomatic license plates are only a minor hazard.

A limited-access road gives Ivan an ideal check-route for detecting a following car. Once away from the glut of cars near the city, he can speed up, slow down, pause on the shoulder, exit, enter at the next extrance, go north or south, get off at a suburban exit into crowded streets or carry on to a country crossroad along which he can drive in leisure to a rural rendezvous. He employs the same tactics to meet his agent in White Plains or to unload a drop at an overpass on the Garden State Parkway.

Washington has more limited egress. A few straight spokes from downtown or branches from the Beltway: Shirley Highway and 95 south, 50 west, 70 to Frederick, 7 and 50 west. The choices are him, exits sparse, backtracking difficult, no criss-crosses. And where are you when you are there? A street corner in Annapolis, the Red Fox Inn in Middleburg, a hotel in Ocean City -- places not teeming with foreigners.

Washington is an even worse place for recruiting new agents.

Mixing with the right people, of course, is easy here. A KGB officer can meet them at charity benefits and dinner parties. He can sit in Hill committee meetings, make the rounds in Georgetown, attend university seminars and public lectures.But to see the right people often enough to cultivate a personal relationship, to size them up as pany town. One alert eye is enough to ruin a budding friendship.

So most of the KGB's agents within the Washington labyrinth have been recruited abroad. These recruits are more vulnerable, often lonely in a strange environment, readier to meet foreigners, away from the prying eyes of their own security service. It has become an old story: a corporal in West Berlin, a sergeant in London, a warrant officer in Paris, a code clerk in New Delhi, a junior officer in Warsaw.

And there have been the well-placed foreign diplomats -- Maclean, Philby and Burgess in the British embassy, Col. Stig Wennerstrom in the Swedish embassy -- all on the payroll before they came here.

Nor has the KGB, so far as we know, played the Mata Hari gambit despite the public record of extramarital affairs by prominent U.S. personages. Cuban intelligence has shown more enterprise with Jennifer Miles, a tall blond in her mid-20s who for a time in 1969 and 1970 made it in the social whirl with young diplomats, foreign ambassadors and a protocol officer in State. She, too, was handled out of New York, and it was the accidental exposure of a dead-drop in Queens that ended her career.

Washington does have one tourist attraction, though, that is superior to anything Manhattan can offer: the Soviet embassy. Sitting there quietly on 16th Street, its windows opaque, surrounded by an iron fence, it has acted for years as a magnet for an odd collection of Americans.

In the 1960s an Army captain visited Washington from Puerto Rico to sell his wares to the Russians. He walked along the sidewalk and threw a folded newspaper over the fence with instructions inside for a meeting in New York. The newspaper was retrieved, and the captain met with some unexpected visitors at his New York rendezvous.

A retired printer from the CIA threw a more valuable gift over the fence: a batch of classified CIA publications he had collected during his tenure in the print shop. It, too, was retrieved.

Most recently, Lt. Christopher Cooke, deputy commander of a Titan missile base, simply walked into the embassy three or four times and had a chat.

But overall the KGB really doesn't prefer Washington. The KGB still loves New York, Mayor Koch, even if some others are finding better places to do their business.