It struck me, while listening to a covey of former CIA directors testifying the other morning on a proposed law to control the intelligence communitty, that people who do secret security work have a special personal need to have their "honor" avowed and confirmed.

Perhaps it is that they move in a world where deeds considered strange or deceptive or even illegal are regularly practiced, and where they see (and look for) the raw and ugly side of other people, and where the moral or legal compass bearings that "normal" people supply to each other in their daily routine have been blurred by the secrecy or ambiguity or sense of high national mission touching much intelligence work. They need to know that their work is valued, and so are their souls.

I have to say I had been reading the brilliantly conceived British thriller "The Honourable Schoolboy," whose title figure, a spy with journalistic cover, is not only an aristocrat (The Honourabel . . .) but, in author John Le Carre's evident view, an honorable man. Of which more below.

William Colby, a former CIA director, was testifying. To make his point that across the centuries states have excepted intelligence from the constraints of law, he cited Nathan Hale, executed (at age 21) for spying on the British, and quoted Hale's belief that "every kind of service, necessary to the public good, becomes honorable by being necessary."

Becomes honorable by being necessary - the first American statement of the ethical code of what is sometimes called the national security state? Colby himself now rejects that code. he doesn't feel CIA people necessarily have been dishonorable. Quite the contrary. He told me during a break in the hearing that the level of honor in the agency was a good deal higher, though unsung, that the public realizes. The title of his own forthcoming book is "Honorable Men."

But Colby has made a great leap. He has abandoned the old-school notion that it is enough for CIA to be guided by a sense of institutional honor. He welcomes, as he said in his testimony, the new concept, represented by the proposed legislation, "that American intelligence must operate under the confines of the Constitution we Americans have established as the framework to govern our affairs."

Between a code of honor and the rule of law lies a tangle of history, some terrible abuses, some honorable acts, much moral confusion. The difference between the two is not that of night and day, arbitrariness and legality or, in an operational context, effectiveness and inadequacy. It would be more accurate to say that the national consensus has changed. Formerly it supported the honorable old-school boys of the CIA, who were deemed unneedful of the customary democratic controls, and now it supports the Senate's historically unprecedented project of bringing intelligence under law.

You cannot say, however, that the new concept has swept the whole intelligence community. In a rare public speech in 1971 then - CIA derector Richard Helms, manisfesting the intelligence man's characteristic craving to have his honor stroked, pleaded for the American people to believe "that we, too, are honorable men." He conceded: "The nation must to a degree take it on faith." Obviously, he did not expect that subsequent disclosures - of abuses that took place, unaddressed by him, during his directorship - would let the nation judge the CIA's honor, and his own, on a more solid basis.

Helms went on to afford the pyblic an even more direct insight into his own system of values. Convicted last year of failing to testify fully and accurately to Congress about CIA operations in Chile, he described his conviction to the press as "a badge of honor" - it meant to him he had kept his agency oath not to divulge classified information. I found it sickening that he himself above the law.

"I chose the secret road," Le Carre's spymaster, George Smiley, sums up, "because it seemed to lead straightest and furthest toward my country's goal." Le Carre leaves Smiley morally neutered, believed only in conspiracy: "The sword I have lived by...the sword I shall die by as well."

But he takes the honorable schoolboy himself, the journalist-spy, the final step forward. "You point me and I'll march," Gerald Westerby begins. At the end, catastrophe overwhelms him, but not only catastrophe. Not as a spy but as a man, one who loves, his honor is redeemed.