THE SENATE has begun consideration of a bill that would outlaw the activity of a small band of individuals determined to destroy America's foreign intelligence apparatus by revealing the names of covert intelligence agents. The practice, associated with author and former CIA officer Philip Agee, has already been cited as leading to the murder of the CIA station chief in Athens in 1975 and to an assassination attempt on the life of another American official in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1980. Mr. Agee has revealed the names of 1,000 alleged CIA officers, and a newsletter, Covert Action Information Bulletin, edited by Louis Wolf, has printed 2,000. Legislation to inhibit such practices is not a bad idea as such.

Prosecuting private citizens for publication of any material has constitutional implications, however, and special care must be taken to delineate the conduct Congress wants to inhibit while protecting legitimate activities where no intent to disrupt intelligence activities exists. Readers will note that this newspaper, like all others, has a strong interest in preserving broad latitude in reporting foreign affairs.

The best way to ensure that the real culprits are reached by the law while others are protected is to require the government to meet a standard of proof that includes "intent to impair or impede the foreign intelligence activities of the United States." This is the language of the bill that was reported by the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall and that is now being considered by the full Senate. It is expected, however, that an amendment will be offered that would substitute for the intent standard a simple requirement that the accused simply "had reason to believe" such a result would occur. This amendment is identical to one that was adopted on the House floor when that body passed the bill last September. It is the version preferred by the administration, though Richard Willard, the attorney general's counsel for intelligence policy, has stated that either version of the bill is acceptable so long as some bill is enacted without further delay.

The requirement that intent be proven in criminal cases is an essential element of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. It is especially important that it be preserved in this instance because a lesser standard may inhibit the exercise of legitimate First Amendment rights by those having absolutely no desire to cripple our intelligence services.