CONGRESS HAS cut off funds for CIA assistance to the contras who are fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, but private groups in this country have attempted to fill the gap. Recent news accounts quote one retired general who claims that $500,000 a month is being raised from individual U.S. citizens and organizations and that millions of dollars have already been sent to Central America for this cause. There is irony in the situation because the sending of this aid, which forwards the foreign policy objectives of the administration, might very well have been labeled criminal conduct if Congress had passed "anti-terrorist" legislation sought by the White House.

Last spring, the president sent four anti-terrorism bills to the Hill. Three were enacted, but the fourth, which was especially awful, is back at the Justice Department being redrafted. The proposal would have created a crime -- aiding terrorism -- without telling us who terrorists are or what specific acts in support of terrorism would be banned. The secretary of state would have been given the discretion to name certain groups as terrorists, and while he probably would have cited the Libyan government, the PLO and the IRA, he could in theory also have included some South African rebels, guerrillas in El Salvador and the contras in Nicaragua. Once the groups had been named, Americans could have been prosecuted for providing "support services." The bill provides that sending medical supplies would not be prohibited, but how about food, money, uniforms, educational materials and welfare for fighters' families? Private groups now aiding the contras are sending most of these. One organizer explains that "non-lethal" aid "drives the commies nuts" because it increases good will toward the Ued States and allows local armies to spend more money on arms.

Many kinds of assistance to rebel groups or terrorists abroad are already illegal -- unauthorized arms sales, for example, or prohibited currency transactions. So is aiding and abetting murder or participating in a conspiracy to kill. But the vague and sweeping language of the administration's original proposal might have criminalized grass- roots fund-raising that donors believe is for humanitarian reasons or in the cause of a just political uprising. These are undoubtedly the motives of the people now aiding the contras with the encouragement of the U.S. government. The administration's bill, rejected by legislators ranging from Sen. Jeremiah Denton to Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, is being revised. If it is not possible or useful to redraft it so that it is directed at specific criminal acts not already unlawful, it should be junked.