The congressman asked his question, and the foreign witness seemed taken aback. Where did they get all that American money? the congressman wanted to know. Well, the witness replied, after pausing to register surprise, there are banks. Laughter, next question.

These are the days of the Washington novel, mainly superheated trash with bloodless characters, wooden plots, tinear dialogue, and common themes: power and secrecy, spiced with athletic sex and abundant cash. On the Hill, at the moment, true life again proves far more interesting than fiction.

The Korean story, now in the public hearing stage, gives evidence of the seamier side of Washington. Bribery, seduction, influence peddling, showering of gifts, lavish entertaining, clandestine meetings, bag men - all are part of what's depicted as a plot by a foreign power to subvert the Congres and American leaders. It's all supposed to be a great scandal, an assault on our system by the ancient and wily and wicked ways of the Orient.

Questions about who's bribing whom and what system's really on trial on Capitol Hill are something else. More on them later. For now, let it be said the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, usually called the ethics committee, provides a realistic counterpart to the fictional renderings of how some parts of Washington work.

We're being given glimpses of how real spies really operate, how they meet, plan, plot and maneuver. Ambassador's are seen stuffing white envelopes with hundred dollar bills and then making their congressional rounds for payoffs. We sit in on backroom conferences at which strategy is planned. We encounter the agents learning their codes and code names - "Catholic Father" and "Patriarch."

The phony foundations and "cover" and associated firms are spelled out - the International Research Center, the Pan Ocean Bulk Carriers, the Pacific Development Corp. - along with the code names of operations, such as Ice Mountain and White Snow. We follow the secret agents as they meet at places most of us don't go, the Sans Souci and where many of us do frequent, the Moon Palace on upper Wisconsin Avenue. We move around with them as they go from their homes in the Dolley Madison Apartments in McLean to a high-rise where they collect liquor and gifts to be dispensed, or wait with them as they withdraw $44,000 in cash from the Riggs Bank on Dupont Circle for a subsequent payoff.

We learn how the money flows through customs unchecked by diplomatic pouch straight from Korea and how it arrives in neat bundles of American hundred dollar bills wrapped in brown paper. And we hear their language, so simple and straightforward we know it's unmistakably true:

"When I entered his office he was at his desk. He was stuffing something into envelopes. As I walked over to his desk, I could see hundred dollar bills . . ."

And:

"He was almost finished with his packing [of the money]. I asked him where he was going. He said to the Capitol . . ."

Or:

"I received $256,000 wrapped in thick brown paper. I counted the bundles. There were 26 bundles altogether . . ."

O.K. All good spy stuff from late-night coded messages to contacts with friends in high places. James Bond meet Kim Hyung Wook. But the Koreans subverting us and our system? Bunk. They're only following the leader trying to emulate an old American act. That's part of the real-life story on the Hill, too.

Getting it in cash may not be as old as the Republic, but it certainly has an ancient if not honorable, tradition, back in the Boss Tweed days of a century ago a bag man was introduced to a politician-on-the-take by the note: "He understands addition, division - all silence." In a more modern period, the Twenties, E.F. Dohney delivered $100,000 in hundred dollar bills in a satchel to Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall after the secretary secretly and without competitive bidding had leased an oil reserve to Domeny's company. It was "just a hagatelle." Doheny said later, a normal way of doing business.

The flow of hundred dollar bills in Washington has continued as we all know, into the present, what with Watergate cash transactions, oil company largesse in the form of white envelopes and bulging with dough and Spiro Agnew's taking his in the office - the Office of the Vice President. But there's been a difference: now, we send the cash round the world either to bribe or to prop up certain political figures and governments. You may recall a year ago when stories suddenly blossomed in The Washington Post and The New York Times about how our CIA was embarked on a program of aiding anti-Communist politicians in Italy to the tune of $6 million. And the record of our CIA's attempting to subvert other governments by buying influence and launching internal propaganda campaigns is clear.

Whether the American money that has been coming back home hidden in diplomatic pouches stems from CIA funds or some of the nearly $13 billion we've supplied South Korea in foreign aid over the years doesn't matter much. What matters, on the basis of the current testimony, is how well the South Koreans have attempted to emulate us.

Listening to the witnesses and hearing the descriptions of their operations is like seeing the mirror turned around. They didn't even make an attempt to be original: their intelligence corps was also naed the CIA - with a "K" in front of its letters. They had their station chief just like ours: their embassy was structured like so many of ours (though their ratio of 12 spooks to 30 employees seems quite high). They employed their shredding machines and their telex coding operations and their "back channels" of communications.

And when they gathered to discuss their secret plans, many of the phrases used and techniques discussed seemed straight out of the American intelligence/corporate textbook. They were going to "enchance their image," they were going to "influence Congress," they were going to "create a more favorable atmosphere," they were going to launch a nationwide letter-writing campaign aimed at enlisting the support of American opinion leaders. It was, in part, American PR Seoul style.

There was something else very American about all this. Some of their best plans, too, went sadly awry.

Despite what Leon Jaworski warned would be a "grim picture" portrayed at the Hill hearings, there's more than a flavor of a real-life Lavender Hill Mob scene. Bumbling and fumbling abound: the shredding machine doesn't work. The covers are blown. The instructions come down from the highest office, from "Patriarch" himself, to burn the documents, don't make copies, don't carry anything out of the conference room. Now, it is all being played out in the press, with acute embarrassment all around. An American phenomenon, to be sure.

The Koreans, it seems, are learning a painful but familiar lesson: there are no secrets in Washington. Well, very few.

What Americans are not learning, it seems, is just who really bribed whom. In other words, who were the teachers and who the pupils, who the corruptors, who the corrupted?