THE PAST decade's record wave of 45 espionage prosecutions led the Senate Intelligence Committee last fall to commission a group of private citizens to review the government's capabilities to combat this traffic, most of it conducted by government employees spying for money. The panel, led by Eli Jacobs, a New York businessman with experience as a defense adviser, has proposed 13 statutory changes that are in a bill now before the committee.

Few would question the gravity of espionage offenses -- secrets are still being sought by Soviet intelligence and by other services -- or the need for a strong government response. But as always in questions of national security, secret investigations and criminal prosecutions, special care must be given to the civil liberties implications. The Jacobs committee by and large has done a conscientious job balancing the government's requirements and the rights of affected individuals. It recommends, for example, establishment of uniform, minimum standards for receiving security clearances instead of the agency-by-agency system now used. It drew on abundant recent experience to establish the government's need to know more about the possible personal difficulties of employees with access to top secret information; one recommendation is to provide special counseling services to employees thought to be vulnerable. The panel also recommended expansion of some criminal offenses and penalties and rewards for information leading to espionage convictions or to prevention of such offenses.

The American Civil Liberties Union has prepared a 52-page document suggesting changes in the proposed bill. Many can be accommodated without much difficulty; senators on the Intelligence Committee are alert to civil liberties problems. Two areas, however, require special attention. One is the panel's recommendation that lie detector tests be administered periodically to government employees who deal with sensitive cryptographic information. Though the use of these tests is meant to be carefully fenced in, such tests remain unreliable and constitute a serious invasion of privacy.

There is the further issue of conducting searches without warrants in national security cases. The government wishes to continue this practice, though it is hard to imagine how this intrusive policy has been allowed by courts. The panel proposes the minimal safeguard of requiring warrants from special federal intelligence courts, as with national security wiretaps. Here Congress should follow the commission's lead.