THE OTHERWISE routine nomination of Thomas Pauken to be diretor of ACTION, the federal agency that oversees volunteer programs, including the Peace Corps, is in trouble. A Texas lawyer and twice-defeated congressional candidate. Mr. Pauken seemed a shoo-in. One issue has held up his confirmation: whether his stint as a military intelligence officer in Vietnam in the 1960s disqualifies him from overseeing the Peace Corps.

Some of his backers are disturbed that the issue should be raised at all. They suggest that to question his intelligence background is to question the legitimacy of intelligence. Others suggest that to object to him on grounds connected to his service in Vietnam is to disparage both military service and, by extension, the worth of Vietnam veterans. But there is a certain unreal quality to these suggestions. We don't see anyone disparaging either intelligence or the military or those who served in Vietnam. That would be stupid and indefensible.

There is another, more substantial reason why the question comes up. The Peace Corps works in Third World situation in which a suspected intelligence connection can damage efforts by its volunteers to win the local acceptance they need to work effectively. Volunteers are knowledgeable, and fervent, on the subject. For that reason, the Peace Corps, through all its 20 years, has insisted that its volunteers and staff keep a certain distance from intelligence. Mr. Pauken has said he accepts this policy. Under it, however, he evidently could not be hired as a volunteer or staff member. It takes little imagining to understand how his appointment could be used, unfairly, against the Peace Corps.