They blew taps on Capitol Hill last week for the congressional resolve to "reform" the practices of America's spies and counterspies -- a charter for the CIA.

It was more of a belated memorial service than a funeral. More than four years have passed since the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, headed by Frank Church (D-Idaho), concluded its unprecedented investigations of the nation's intelligence agencies with an uncontested catalogue of illegality, waste and mismanagement in the name of national security.

At the time, the CIA and the FBI seemed to have their backs to the wall. Citing "tactics unworthy of a democracy and occasionally reminiscent of the tactics of totalitarian regimes," the Church committee laid out a record of government lawlessness over a 40-year period under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

The committee's reports mentioned CIA attempts to murder foreign leaders and literally thousands of covert actions carried out without any White House scrutiny.

At home, the reports chronicled a steadily expanding pattern -- on the part of both the FBI and the CIA -- of invasions of privacy, manipulation of the press and violations of constitutional and statutory rights.

Improprietes were found at every level -- sometimes ordered by the White House, sometimes condoned by attorneys general, sometimes conceived by underlings who concealed their misdeeds from their superiors.

The Church reports draw scant mention in Congress these days. It is no longer fashionable to dwell on them. Ever since the investigations closed down, the Senate, and to some extent the House Intelligence committees, have been more concerned, as Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.) recently put it, with winning "the confidence and trust" of the intelligence agencies.

Last Thursday, the Senate Intelligence Committee gave up on the idea of a charter. But what was buried behind the closed doors of the intelligence committee had little resemblance to the explicit legislative controls and restrictions originally recommended by the Church committee.

The proposed charter for the CIA and the rest of the nation's intelligence community had evolved into a wide-ranging license for spying at home and abroad, legitimizing many of the activities the Church committee had criticized.

The charter fell by the wayside partly because it pleased no one, partly because the political impetus for reform had been lost, partly because the subject got caught up in election-year politics.

Sen. Walter D. Huddleston (D-Ky.), the principal sponsor of the charter drive, had still been hoping at mid-week to win enactment of a streamlined "mini-charter" in place of the 172-page bill he introduced in February.

But then the Republicans dealt a crucial blow. Senate Minority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.), according to several sources, let it be known that GOP stalwarts did not want any charter legislation to come up on the Senate floor this year.

"It's a bit of election-year politics," said one Senate insider. "The chances are good that there'll be a Republican president next year. Then they can get what they want."

That wishful sentiment fits in perfectly with the preferences of such groups as the 3,000-member Association of Former Intelligence Officers, which has been pressing for a charter that would give the CIA, not tighter controls, but a much stronger hand.

"Whatever you can get [from Congress] today is going to be less effective than what you can get next year," says the association's legal adviser, John S. Warner. "And anything you get this year is going to take the sails out of what you might get next year."

On the other side of the fence, civil liberties groups are alarmed over what Congress still might do this year, let alone next. Although he has given up on even a "mini-charter," Huddleston is still pressing for a bill that would give the two congressional intelligence committees statutory oversight authority and at the same time endow the CIA with a greater measure of secrecy.

Huddleston's bill would do that by repealing the two most significant restraints on the CIA, both of them enacted before the 1975-76 investigations took place. One of them is the Freedom of Information Act, which has drawn loud complaints from the CIA ever since the agency was forced to comply with the law under a series of amendments Congress enacted in 1974.

Huddleston's last-ditch proposal would exempt countless CIA documents from disclosure, perhaps even newspaper clippings, which the agency has contended in at least one lawsuit are "intelligence sources." If the CIA has its way, anything withheld under this new FOI exemption will not be subject to court review.

The Huddleston proposal would also limit reports of covert actions and other "significant" intelligence activities to the two intelligence committees. It calls for prior notice of such undertakings, but the rule of advance notification is offset by a proviso that the Carter administration insist upon permitting the executive branch to withhold prior notice under a variety of circumstances.

On paper, at least, those same grounds -- such as "due regard for the protection of classified information . . . from unauthorized disclosure" -- could also be invoked under the bill to withhold information from Congress about "intelligence activities that are illegal."

The impetus for reform began to dissipate in the winter of 1975-76, before the Church committee had even finished its work. Former congressman Otis G. Pike (D-N.Y.), who then headed a parallel House investigation, stated the problem succinctly: "It all lasted too long, and the media, the Congress and the people lost interest."

By the time the Church committee wrapped up its work in April 1976, months behind schedule, it was all they could do to win approval of a bill creating the permanent Senate Intelligence Committee that now exists. To some, it seemed a pallid response to all the assassination plots, burglaries, bugging and mind-bending that had come to light, but it was widely hailed on the Senate floor as a startling accomplishment.

It took more than 1 1/2 years -- until February 1978 -- to produce a bill. The 263-page measure was promptly denounced by the CIA's supporters as too restrictive in light of the "very few transgressions" that had been uncovered.

Although it fell far short of a number of the Church committee's recommendations, the bill, S. 2525, was soon downgraded to the status of a talking paper, another starting point for debate. The Carter administration, which had promised reform, was never even required to testify about it. Instead, an inter-agency committee composed of intelligence agency representatives began work on what one of them frankly called a "counterdraft" that would be sure to raise senatorial hackles.

By mid-1978, Church, no longer on the Intelligence Committee, saw that it was already too late. "Reforms have been delayed to death," he said then. "This has been the defense mechanism of the agency, and it could easily have been foreseen . . . There is great wisdom in the old saying that "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

The charter bill Huddleston introduced in February contained one concession after another for the intelligence agencies.

It would have authorized the CIA to carry out wiretaps and burglaries against law-abiding Americans abroad to obtain information the government thinks they might have. Other provisions would have made it possible for the FBI to use disruptive techniques and disinformation campaigns -- reminiscent of its controversial COINTELPRO activities against domestic groups suspected of ties to foreign powers.

The bill is "the obverse of intelligence reform," protested the Center for National Security Studies, a privately funded critic of the CIA, in its newsletter, "First Principles." "S. 2284 . . . reads the way might imagine the Fourth Amendment to read if it were drafted by a committee of police chiefs."

American Civil Liberties Union spokesmen Jerry Berman and Morton H. Halperin testified, "The Carter administration and this committee have put before the public a bill which departs from nearly every significant principle of reform embodied in the recommendations of the Church committee."

The White House and the CIA were still unhappy with the bill, primarily because of the extent of congressional oversight required. Huddleston continued to bargain, expressing confidence until last week that agreement could still be reached on a mini-charter.

The oversight powers were diluted to the administration's satisfaction. Other outstanding issues -- such as the extent of the inroads on the Freedom of Information Act and the claims of civil libertarians that their views were being ignored -- were reviewed at a White House meeting last Wednesday.

Vice President Mondale, CIA Director Stansfield Turner, Huddleston, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) and others attended. Some concessions by the administration on civil liberties issues were reportedly hinted at.

"The basic conclusion to get on with it, to go into markup [on a mini-charter]," said one administration official who was present.

Then Huddelston went back to Capitol Hill and took readings on the chances there. According to several sources, the minority leader, Baker, informed both Huddleston and Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) that the Republican side wanted nothing resembling a charter this year.

Byrd reportedly concluded that the legislation was just too controversial and couldn't be passed this year.

Prospects on the House side, Huddleston found, were also bleak. He called the vice president and, according to a White House official, told Mondale: "Sorry, I can't do it."

Although it has said little publicly this year beyond complaining of "unwarranted restraints" on the nation's intelligence-gathering activities, the administration last Friday expressed its condolences -- and a renewed interest in civil liberties.

"It's a damn shame," said one high-ranking administration official. "But if they're going to go forward with anything, then we're going to see if we can't put in some protections on civil liberties . . . And we'll be back in there next year, assuming we get reelected."

Back in September 1976, candidate Carter said in Dallas: "The CIA has spied on our people. The FBI committed burglaries . . . This is a time for change in our country. I don't want the people to change. I want the government to change."

So far nothing has changed except public opinion. AFIO Chairman David Phillips, a former CIA officer who fequently travels about the country making speeches, reports: "The change in public attitude since Iran and Afghanistan has really been something. Now people say to me: 'Unleash the CIA? Great. That will solve our problems.'"

And it could also bring back some old problems.