OLD SOLDIERS may fade away. But what happens to old spooks who don't? To be precise: what happens to folks who have spent a career practicing the black arts of covert action, working in an atmosphere of conspiracy, sometime-illegality and dedication to their cause and never doubting that they had the tacit consent and perhaps even the gratitude of the higher-ups for the shortcuts that were essential to their job? What work are they fit for, professionally and mentally, when they come in from the cold?

Four years ago reporter Bob Woodward disclosed information suggesting that at least a small handful of former covert operatives, including a man named Edwin P. Wilson and some anti-Castro Cuban exiles, had made a questionable detour. The government was asking, he reported, whether they had gone into the terrorism business for the Libyan dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. The story enjoyed a brief run and was enveloped in a cloud of internal government concern.

The same story, elaborated, is enjoying a new life. Mr. Wilson, formally accused of supplying explosives, weapons and training to Libyan terrorists and of plotting an assassination on behalf of Col. Qaddafi, is said to be a fugitive in Tripoli. Fresh attention is being thrown on the ways in which he apparently used his CIA connections and his CIA aura to market his services after formal retirement and to recruit others--some still in the agency--to help him provide them. The frustrations of investigators in obtaining reliable information and witnesses to penetrate this world of practiced deceits and international shadows are on plain view.

Aside from media chance, the evident reason the Wilson affair is again at center stage is that in the interim a new administration came to power pledging to combat international terrorism, especially Col. Qaddafi's. It is sobering news that, through the likes of Mr. Wilson and some erstwhile confederates and some old Cubans, the United States itself had a hand in creating the very menace that it is now combating.

It is in the nature of covert action, or in the nature of the public's view of it, that there are people who suspect that some outer sanctum of the CIA put Mr. Wilson up to his Libyan tricks and some inner sanctum is still "running" him. You will also find people who see in the latest revelations a KGB disinformation operation intended to discredit the CIA just as it starts girding for a new cold war.

Actually, the facts, as best we understand them, are quite prosaic. Within days of learning of Mr. Wilson's doings in 1977, CIA director Stansfield Turner fired a number of CIA employees whose contacts with the already-retired Mr. Wilson he deemed questionable. Informed congressional overseers have found no reason to doubt that, then or since, intelligence officials perceive the danger retired rogues can do the agency's standing and work.

No matter how many old CIA hands, retirees and ex-contract employees alike make a good adjustment when they leave covert action, incidents like the Wilson affair and the assassination of Orlando Letelier, not to speak of Howard Hunt and Watergate, demonstrate that some do not. It is an ugly problem.

The publicity in these cases may have a certain value in raising the level of agency as well as congressional and public consciousness of the problem. Perhaps the CIA or its alumni associations should consider accepting some responsibility, if not to keep an eye on the old boys, then to aid the reentry of those whose only salable talents are black. The moment when a new wave of covert action may be in the offing is precisely the right time to ponder the rogues left over from the last round.