The word got out a little over a week ago, in the vague and indirect way that word gets out in the diplomatic world, that the American ambassador to Guatemala, Frank V. Ortiz Jr., was being recalled after less than a year on the job because of strong policy disagreements with the home office.

In one sense, that is what did happen. The State Department has been systematically replacing all U.S. ambassadors in Central America, apparently feeling that the United States needs a new breed of envoys there who can deal with dicey situations of incipient revolution -- not diplomats of the old school like Ortiz, 54, the highest ranking Hispanic in the foreign service and a man practically born in striped pants. His superiors clearly felt he was not doing a good job.

But, more specifically, Ortiz' recall was helped along by the activities of a network of leakers in the State Department, private human rights activists, politicians here and in Guatemala and journalists, all of whom are part of the Realpolitik of the upper reaches of the State Department.

Ortiz' story must be told with some vagueness and indirection because people at State prefer to speak as "informed sources" and such, rather than under their own names. However, its outlines are fairly clear.

Frank Ortiz went to Guatemala late last summer after tours in the department and as ambassador to Barbados. At the time the military government of Gen. Omeo Lucas Garcia was a little more than a year old, and, in the view of the U.S. government, was allowing the human rights situation there to worsen considerably.

The Lucas Garcia government's main problem has been a brutal series of assassinations -- hundreds or thousands among government officials, professors, students, labor leaders and businessmen, resulting in ever greater chaos and an ever-stronger revolutionary left.

A former foreign minister was gunned down in broad daylight in Guatemala City. So was a former mayor of the city. So were 15 professors at San Carlos University. At a Coca-Cola plant, three successive heads of the union were killed and a fourth abducted, and a plant manager was killed. The murders have come mostly from the right, but from the left, as well, and it is widely felt that the government has been at least complicit in the deaths of several liberals.

All parties seem to agree that Ortiz, while in contact with all major political elements in Guatemala, stayed in closer touch with the military government, feeling that it would be the most likely agent of change for the better -- a feeling not shared by most other observers. In the process, the Guatemalan left and the human rights lobby in Washington became convinced that his sympathies lay with the right.

Here Laurence R. Birns, a rumpled 50-year-old ex-professor who spends his time in an office on 16th Street, wearing white cotton T shirts and drooping socks rather than pinstripes, enters the story. Birns is the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Ford Foundation-funded human rights group.

Birns is a man with little money and no official position, but quite a lot of influence, stemming from his wide range of contacts and his strong views. He knows people in Latin America, in the State Department, at the White House, on Capitol Hill and in the press.

This enables him, for instance, to see much of the classified cable traffic of our Latin American embassadors. On the basis of cables leaked to him by State Department officials, Birns decided last fall that Ortiz had to go, and began to air that view to his friends.

The time was ripe for a change in Guatemala anyway. The State Department sent a new ambassador to El Salvador in March, and to Nicaragua last year. Ortiz' star was fading, because in November he came to Washington and told his superiors what he sincerely believed: that the government-condoned violence in Guatemala was abating. In fact, it wasn't.

In April, Birns spotted an item from a Guatemalan newspaper mentioning that a Navy destroyer, the USS Manley, had made a port visit to Guatemala in March. Because the United States, for human rights reasons, does not have a military, relationship with Guatemala, he found this unseemly.

One day soon thereafter, Birns went with a group of church activists to see James Cheek, a deputy assistant secretary of state with responsibility for Central America and the Caribbean. He mentioned the Manley's visit

That evening, Cheek called Birns back and said that yes, the destroyer had visited Guatemala, and no, he hadn't known about it. Birns immediately called a reporter at The Washington Post, who verified the story and then wrote it.

As it turns out, State Department regulations then didn't require Ortiz to tell Washington about the ship's visit. They do now; his superiors felt good judgment would have dictated that he send a cable.Ortiz maintains that an American official in neighboring Belize covered him by cabling the news about the Manley.

Birns says the Post story "without question" brought about Ortiz' recall.

"That's exaggerating the importance of it," says Cheek. "It might have fed some existing dissatisfaction on the part of some."

On June 10, Rep. Thomas R. Harkin (D-Iowa), a strong human rights supporter, wrote to President Carter complaining about Ortiz. Among other things, the letter said, "I was very disturbed when last December Gen. Singlaub (whom you fired from his post in Korea) took his right-wing group to Guatemala and was ushered around by our ambassador."

Retired Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub and another conservative general, Daniel Graham, did go to Guatemala in December to meet with businessmen there. But Singlaub and Ortiz both stoutly maintain that they have never met or even had any indirect contact. "It's a total fantasy," Singlaub said.

Harkin says he got his information from news clippings Guatemalans gave him. "If I'm wrong I'll apologize for that incident," he said. "I will not apologize for my contention that his policy was wrong."

The next piece of bad news for Ortiz came when he read the Week in Review section of the Sunday, June 15, New York Times. In the last paragraph of the article, he was surprised to see a casual reference to himself as "shortly to be replaced."

The Times article attributed this information to no one, which is a standard practice in diplomatic reporting. For instance, in the same vein, perhaps this is the place to say that the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Mariluci Jaramillo, is also shortly to be replaced. Who says? Sources. That's how the game is played.

On Monday, June 16, Ortiz called William G. Bowdler, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, and asked him what was going on. Bowdler said he would come down in a couple of weeks to talk to Ortiz. Instead, Ortiz came to Washington and got the word he was through in Guatemala.

Then someone in the State Department sympathetic to Ortiz got into the leaking act. In the papers of Saturday, June 28, appeared a story saying that Ortiz was being recalled because of a bitter policy dispute. The stories quoted a long classified cable from Ortiz to Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie in which Ortiz defends his policies and sharply attacks the Lucas Garcia regime for engaging in "heavy-handed repression in dealing with political dissidents."

That leak adds a strange twist to the story, in that it constitutes the strongest statement on record against the Guatemalan government by an American official -- the very official widely thought to be soft on that government. So, it is thought, Ortiz' replacement, George W. Landau, now ambassador to Chile, will go in with everyone in Guatemala confused about where the United States stands.