I don't know how much, if any, truth there is in recent press reports that we are covertly supplying weapons to the Afghan rebels via Pakistan. Nor do I know where the reports originated. But I do know that such reports, true or false, can seriously disturb our friends and provide grist for the mill of our enemies.

I have also learned, on the basis of 40 years of involvement in intelligence and defense matters, that the chance of a leak of sensitive information increases not arithmetically but geometrically with the number of people who know about it. If the number of knowledgeable people increases tenfold, the likelihood of a leak increases a hundredfold. Thus the old issue of how much government secrecy is compatible with a free society is one of the perennial dilemmas of democracy.

This question has rarely been more relevant than today. Since Vietnam and Watergate, we have been treated to a steady flow of sermons on the evils of governmental secrecy; we have been told that most of it is unnecessary and much of it has been invoked solely to cover up misfeasance and mischief. The whistle-blower has become a folk hero. The disgruntled intelligence officer who, in violation of solemn secrecy oaths, exposes colleagues to grave personal danger or discloses sensitive operational information is an instant celebrity. And the principle of free disclosure of previously classified information has been enshrined in the Freedom of Information Act, which required the review and release of such information unless the likely damage resulting from its release can be demonstrated.

Among the results have been costly administrative burdens on the agencies thus required to review masses of classified files and endless inquiries and litigation initiated by those, including agents of hostile governments, who are openly committed to the exposure and disruption of our intelligence operations.

Especially troublesome with regard to covert action operations of the type reportedly under way in Afghanistan has been the so-called Hughes-Ryan Amendment of 1974, requiring that "a description and scope of such operations" be reported to several committees of Congress "in a timely fashion." In practice, this has meant that some 200 congressional members and staffers are privy to such operations and can thwart or frustrate any one of them at any time, whether by a deliberate leak or an innocent indiscretion.

This is not to say that Congress has been the sole source of such leaks. Many have come from those within the executive branch who may seek to curry favor with members of the media or are driven by ideological or other motives to try to forestall impending covert operations. But it is important to remember in this connection that significant covert action operations -- whether good or evil, wise or unwise -- are not and never have been the product of sinister plots hatched in the dark recesses of the intelligence community. As has been well documented on the basis of diligent inquiry by both the Church committee in the Senate and the Pike committee in the House, they have in all important respects been in response to White House direction.

Thus, however we may personally judge its merits, we must assume that any major covert action operation is the result of decisions taken by or on behalf of the president. There is the question, then, of wether in these turbulent times we can afford to allow such decisions to be anonymously vetoed by any one of some 200 or more congressional members or staffers. And this is not an idle question. For, as former directior William Colby has told us, every new CIA covert action plan reported to the several "appropriate" congressional committees in 1975 pursuant to the Hughes-Ryan Amendment was soon leaked.

Personally, I have never been a strong advocate of covert action. In the romantic days of the Dulles brothers when there was talk of checking Soviet expansion and even rolling back the Iron Curtain by largely clandestine means, I was unconvinced. But surely there is a role for covert action -- not as a substitute, but as a supplement and support for overt political, psychological, economic and sometimes military measures in serving legitimate national interests.

And surely the president -- any president -- in confronting the challenges of the 1980s, which already promises to be the most turbulent decade since World War II -- will need some options between diplomatic representation on the one hand and Marine landings on the other. But many of these options must by their nature depend for success on secrecy.

Several measures now under consideration in Congress would contribute much to providing such secrecy. Some would limit the application of the Hughes-Ryan Amendment and the Freedom of Information Act where intelligence and covert operations are concerned. Others would impose meaningful penalties on intelligence and certain other government personnel who, in willful violation of secrecy commitments, publicly disclose information regarding especially sensitive intelligence sources, methods and identities.

In most governmental affairs in a society such as ours, there are no easy answers to the question of the proper limits of secrecy. The handling of many matters concerning not only diplomacy and defense but also finance, law enforcement, foreign trade, judicial proceedings, agriculture, etc., has long involved considerable confidentiality. But where intelligence and related covert activities are concerned, we would do well to heed the words of Gen. Washington when, in 1777, he wrote to Col. Elias Dayton:

"The necessity for procuring good intelligence is apparent and need not be further urged -- all that remains for me to add is that you keep the whole matter as secret as possible. For upon secrecy, success depends in most enterprises of the kind and for want of it they are generally defeated however well planned."