As the press gives prominent play to the FBI's five-year dragnet surveillance of dissenters against the president's Central American policies, there is an obbligato to the coverage: a motif of the trusting press having been betrayed. No public figure in recent years has been held in such reverence by the press as former FBI director William Webster. Now it turns out that most journalists were asleep during his watch.

In 1974, Justice Lewis Powell said what the press likes to hear: "By enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process, the press performs a crucial function in effecting the societal purpose of the First Amendment." Yet, largely unknown to the public, there was abundant, continuing evidence during Judge Webster's tenure that the "new" FBI still operated on its vintage principle, most gracefully phrased in modern times by Attorney General Edwin Meese: "If a person is innocent of a crime, he is not a suspect."

When Webster ascended to the CIA, variations of a headline in The Washington Post, "Webster Restored FBI's Image," could be found in just about every paper in the country. Yet in 1984, Rep. Don Edwards' subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights issued a long, carefully detailed report, "FBI Undercover Operations," which focused on the bureau's all too frequent indifference to the most basic constitutional rights of anyone who got in the way of its scams and stings -- let alone the rights of its sometimes dimly selected targets.

One section of Edwards' report told of Operation Colcor in North Carolina. Setting out the honey pots for possibly corrupt politicians, undercover agents manipulated the holding of a referendum in a small town on whether liquor should be sold by the drink. The agents then covertly lobbied for its passage, spreading some cash around. In shock and outrage, the North Carolina State Board of Elections wrote Webster to stop his operatives from corrupting the democratic processes.

There is much more in the Edwards report, including an account of great damage to the reputations of several innocent judges in Cleveland during another FBI scam. This scam was so bungled that the agents, conned by a hustler they had hired, were then fooled by fake judges using the names of real judges. But the FBI leaked the names of the real judges to the press. One of the real judges, whose record was as clear as country water, later told me: "When the FBI hurts people, they hurt them forever." He also said the FBI has never apologized.

But the report by the Edwards subcommittee was a one-day story. Except for "60 Minutes," which did occasionally explore the differences between the Webster myth and actual raw operations by the bureau, the press -- in a prototypical example of herd journalism -- had decided the FBI was clearly and wondrously rehabilitated. And so wrote.

Meanwhile, however, the kinds of people who were of consuming interest to J. Edgar Hoover's FBI knew a lot more than the press. In 1986, the Sojourners, a group of Christian nonviolent peace activists, noted in their magazine that "if your congregation is engaged in social justice issues, the possibility of a federal agent secretly taping everything that is said in a worship service or meeting is very real."

As the FBI record has shown for some years, the Sojourners were hardly paranoid. They were reporting facts.

In FBI documents during the Hoover era, the director used to tell his foot soldiers that those people out there demonstrating and signing un-American petitions must be made to feel as if the FBI were everywhere -- an agent behind every bush is a phrase I remember. That's the way a good many nonviolent, nonconspiratorial dissenters felt in the Webster years too, and they still feel that way.

Their photographs and license-plate numbers and names are still in the files under new FBI Director William Sessions. And Sessions, even before completing his own inquiry into the documents obtained by the Center for Constitutional Rights, has declared that, as a whole: "I think that what we will find will be quite proper."

The press so far has been most respectful of Judge Sessions. But his haste in exculpating his predecessor is hardly reassuring in the face of these internal documents, which make it clear that Webster himself was pressing the field offices to find something, anything, on groups whose ideology was not to his taste. Why else go after the Fellowship of Reconciliation, one of the oldest traditional pacifist organizations in the United States? Even Hoover might have shied away from that one.

The FBI, as is its custom, is now hiding behind its classified guidelines for these investigations. This is a venerable secret-police tactic for being able to deny any wrongdoing, while keeping the targets of controversial investigations under dark suspicion. Why must these guidelines be secret? I don't mean that methods of operation should be revealed. I mean that in a nonpolice state, the very criteria by which, say, the Women's Rape Crisis Center gets into the FBI's files on Central America matters -- and stays there -- should be known. Even the press ought to be curious about that.