ACASE INVOLVING a group of elderly Canadians and the U.S. government that has been in District Court here for eight years edged a little closer to conclusion this week. The lawsuit arose out of medical experiments, funded by the CIA, that were conducted in Montreal during the 1950s. The plaintiffs were all psychiatric patients at the time, and neither they nor their families knew they were used as subjects in the experiments. The procedures to which they were subjected were designed to find ways of counteracting brainwashing, which the American government believed had been perfected by the Soviets and the Chinese during the Korean War. They included the use of powerful drugs, massive electroshock therapy and sensory deprivation.

After the CIA's role in this affair was revealed in the late '70s, nine Canadians filed suit asking that other patients involved in the experiment be traced and informed -- the courts have refused to order a search -- and seeking a modest $175,000 each in damages. One plaintiff has already died and another was dropped from the suit this week, but of the remaining seven, one is in his eighties and the others are all over 70. That's one reason why the slow pace of this litigation is maddening. Another is the apparent determination of the U.S. government not to give an inch or concede any obligation to compensate those who were so badly used and permanently injured.

The CIA refused to cooperate in the taking of depositions and the production of information under the Freedom of Information Act. The agency was sustained by the courts, so these preliminary steps took years instead of months. A motion to dismiss the action was filed, and Judge John Garrett Penn took a full year to decide it. Then a motion for summary judgment was made; it was argued on March 10, 1987, and decided only this week. Judge Penn rejected the CIA's arguments that the suit was improperly filed under the Federal Tort Claims Act and ordered the parties to proceed to trial.

Scheduling and conducting a lengthy trial at this point would undoubtedly involve additional long delay and be a special burden on the aged plaintiffs. It would not serve the interest of the CIA, either, to have the details of this sordid affair discussed and debated in public once more. Is there not a sensible person at Langley who will decide that enough is enough and settle the suit? The amount of money at stake is modest. The principle of responsibility at issue is not.