Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) yesterday passionately defended his efforts to rewrite the federal criminal code against criticism by lawyers in a panel discussion of individual freedom in the United States.

Kennedy charged the critics with "serious distortion and misrepresentation" of the 700-page revision bill that he sponsored earlier this year. The legislation was passed by the Senate, but the House failed to produce a counterpart measure.

Harvard law professor Vern Countryman and John H. F. Shattuck, Washington director of the American Civil Liberties Union, criticized the Senate version but condemned the current code as well at a two-day meeting dedicated to former Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas.

Countryman, who labeled the bill "very bad," and a discredit to Kennedy's career, said it "consistently disregards civil rights," unjustifiably expands the reach of federal criminal authority, and contains statutes that are too broad. Kennedy, virtually roaring to the audience of about 600 at the gathering sponsored by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, said the critics failed to mention that the bill reduced maximum penalties for every federal crime or that it vastly improved the inconsistent sentencing system in the United States.

"We need change and we need alteration... I'm committed to working on that," said Kennedy who has vowed to push the measure for passage again next year.

At an earlier session of the two-day tribute to Douglas, led by his wife, Cathleen, with former Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas, another panel took a pessimistic view of the state of individual freedoms in this country.

Former attorney general Ramsey Clark, attorney Leonard Boudin, Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.) and Harry Ashmore, director of the Douglas program, linked the poor state of individual rights to continuing social and economic inequalities.

"We are creating sectors in our society which will result in the destruction of everything... including the Constitution, and we are doing nothing about it," Boudin said.

Ashmore said the "civil rights revolution" has not touched a level of society whose poverty "seems to be permanent." Jordan declared freedom "still an abstraction." Clark said the plight of the young, black, unemployed, and materially deprived is evidence that "we have created a society that breeds crime."

In a third discussion yesterday, intelligence and legal experts called unanimously for legislation to clarify the functions and limitations of American intelligence agencies.

"It's important to come to a middle ground and end the five years of agony about our intelligence community," said former CIA director William Colby.

CIA director Stansfield Turner defended the agency's need for secrecy and said its existence is more "vital to our freedom," than ever before.