WHATEVER HIS role in World War II may have been, Kurt Waldheim's own words show a record of lies, omissions, denials, admissions, half-truths and evasions about his service to the Nazis. He is fast proving himself unworthy of belief, and certainly unworthy of the presidency of Austria.

Is Waldheim a Nazi war criminal? No incontrovertible evidence of his actual participation in atrocities has come to light, and perhaps none ever will. As the former director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, I have seen many cases of this sort end inconclusively.

What has disturbed me, in this case, are Waldheim's responses to the allegations against him. The pattern is startlingly similar to those of dozens of Nazi criminals that the Justice Department has prosecuted in the last half-dozen years.

In pre-trial interviews and later at the trials of those defendants, certain themes appear again and again:

*The flat and false denial.

This is the first line of defense. "I was never anywhere near Auschwitz,'' or Treblinka or Buchenwald, they say. "I was a POW on the Eastern Front," or a "farmer in the countryside." In his autobiography, and in a letter to Rep. Stephen Solarz in 1980 and his 1986 campaign biography, Waldheim stated repeatedly that he had been injured in 1942 and, after recuperation, studied law in Vienna.

He has now admitted that this is untrue, that he was in uniform until the end of the war. "I never said that my book made claim to completeness," he told a reporter. "Otherwise it would have been so boring that no one would have read it." Later he told a Yugoslav newspaper, "Who can remember everything from the war period?"

*The wrong place-wrong time disclaimer.

When the falsity of the denial is exposed, the usual fallback is what we called the "Auschwitz baker" defense.

"All right," they say, "I was at Auschwitz but I worked in the bakery only." One guard at Dachau claimed he patrolled "beyond the perimeter" -- this in 1934, five years before the war began. A Philadelphia butcher admitted he was on the staff of the auxiliary police that rounded up the Jews in his village of the Ukraine, but claimed he had served only as an interpreter, because he spoke German.

Last month, Waldheim admitted that he was on the staff of Army Unit E in Yugoslavia under Gen. Alexander Lohr, but served only as an interpreter. On March 2, he said, "I sat there and the German command gave orders to the Italian units and the Italians gave messages back, and they needed an interpreter."

Lohr's Army Unit E slaughtered Yugoslav civilians and took part in the deportation of 42,000 Greek Jews from nearby Salonika. Lohr was executed as a war criminal in 1947.

*The claim that appearance was not reality.

As further evidence that cannot credibly be denied comes to light, the suspect admits the appearance of evil but argues that another reality lay behind it. One convicted Nazi in Philadelphia admitted that he had worn the SS uniform but claimed it was an attempt to cut a dashing figure for the ladies. Another in Chicago contended that the Nazi credentials issued in his name were part of his "cover" for anti-Nazi activities.

Five weeks after his admission that he was an "interpreter," and following disclosure of German documents revealing that he signed intelligence reports and briefed Lohr's senior staff on operations, Waldheim was reported as admitting that he reviewed operational data and took part in daily staff meetings. He maintained that, despite these duties, he "largely functioned" as an interpreter.

*The incriminating naivete.

In his attempt to maintain his utter detachment from crime, the accused often denies too much -- the guard at Treblinka who did not know that Jews were killed there, or the Latvian political police officer who thought that the Latvian prisoners were Russian POWs.

The mass deportation of Jews from Salonika to the death camps in the spring of 1943 was one of the Nazis' most notorious actions. It is included in virtually every history of the Holocaust and was critical in the trial of General Lohr in 1947.

Asked about this episode on March 2 of this year, Waldheim was quoted as saying that he was unaware of the deportations prior to that day. "I regret these things most deeply but I have to repeat that it is really the first time that I hear that such things happened."

This was the interview in which Waldheim claimed he was simply an interpreter. It hardly seems possible that an officer reviewing operational reports -- as Waldheim was to admit several weeks later that he did -- would have been unaware of the deportations; surely a man who was secretary general of the United Nations for 10 years could not have been so ignorant of history.

*Nominating the "true" accuser and taking the offensive.

Inevitably, as the evidence mounts, the accused decides that the best defense is a good offense, but that the attack should be mounted against a safe target. In American cases, the accused frequently claimed that the KGB was behind the Justice Department's investigation. Occasionally, and to sympathetic audiences, the defendant attacked "the Jews."

In an interview with a Yugoslav newspaper published March 27, Waldheim claimed that his political opponents in the Austrian presidential race were responsible for the "slander campaign" against him.

What are we to make of a defense that matches, in several important respects, a pattern developed in dozens of cases of men who have been proven in U.S. courts to have been Nazi war criminals? It does not prove guilt; it does prove a lack of credibility that is a serious matter for a candidate for the presidency of Austria.

Allan A. Ryan, Jr., former director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, is the author of "Quiet Neighbors: Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals in America."