Colman McCarthy's column "The Consequences of Covert Tactics" {Style, Dec. 13}, suggesting that instead of reforming the CIA we ought to eliminate it, is extremely naive. Such suggestions are only marginally forgivable when coming from idealistic college professors.

Maybe it is a reflection of the peculiarly American propensity for self-examination that such notions are even considered. Perhaps it is because America is a young nation without the centuries-old tradition of espionage that China and the Soviet Union have. The CIA is less than 40 years old, while the KGB's predecessors stretch back to 16th century czarist Russia. As far back as the 4th century B.C., the Chinese philosopher Sun-tzu said that the acme of skill is not to win a hundred victories in a hundred battles, but to subdue the enemy without a fight. The CIA's successes -- those battles we never had to fight -- vastly outnumber its failures, yet only the latter can end up in print.

Covert action provides an important middle course of action: stronger than lodging a futile diplomatic protest, but still short of sending in the Marines. The KGB's covert action branch has no qualms about being ruthless, and neither should we when genuine national security interests are at stake.

Fears that the CIA will become a "rogue elephant, rampaging out of control" are especially unfounded today, given that CIA covert activities must be approved by the National Security Council, the president and two committees of Congress. Compared with other nations' intelligence agencies, America's agency conducts its secret operations in Macy's window.

The struggle between the CIA and the KGB is more than just an elaborate game of spy vs. spy. The United States is a noble experiment in political history worth protecting from the threats it faces around the globe. Perhaps some day, international understanding will reach a point where the CIA's clandestine operations are no longer necessary, but until that day, no weapon vital in the defense of freedom should be discarded. STEPHEN W. KORTHALS-ALTES Analyst, Office of Technology Assessment U.S. Congress Washington