The Reagan administration, supported and sometimes prodded by a broad range of congressmen and senators, appears increasingly willing to give direct aid to anticommunist and antileftist insurgencies in many parts of the Third World.

So far the support for these insurgencies is largely rhetorical, and the record of U.S. aid delivery is confused and contradictory -- and probably incomplete, because the public record does not include all covert operations. But a chorus of administration speeches has begun to generate a flurry of independent papers, hearings, arguments and legislative efforts that could presage a wider shift in public attitude.

"We must not break faith with those who are risking their lives -- on every continent, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua -- to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth," President Reagan said in his last State of the Union address. Similar messages have been repeated by numerous senior officials in Reagan's administration.

Congress, departing from its recent history of opposing U.S. involvement in messy Third World conflicts, appears surprisingly eager to help. Democrats in Congress have actively pushed for overt aid to rebels in communist-ruled Cambodia and Afghanistan.

Two Republican senators have proposed setting up a special office in the White House to coordinate U.S. aid to insurgent groups rising against Soviet-backed governments in the Third World, from Indochina to southern Africa to Central America.

Other suggestions would make aid an overt program by switching control over it from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Defense Department.

But some officials worry that too formal a doctrine might cramp their flexibility, which now permits contradictory behavior in different cases. Nevertheless, there is general agreement that real content is slowly being given to a policy that is still more sentiment than substance.

The idea of "revolutionary democracy" seems to be catching on, in spite of -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that it has not yet been precisely defined.

The "Reagan doctrine," former United Nations ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick said at a May 10 luncheon, "states the case for the moral superiority of democratic institutions," a superiority that is "nothing short of revolutionary" for "freedom fighters . . . defending themselves against incorporation into a great warrior empire."

"The American people have a long and noble tradition of supporting the struggle of other peoples for freedom, democracy and independence," Secretary of State George P. Shultz said in a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine. "If we turned our backs on this tradition, we would be conceding the Soviet notion that communist revolutions are irreversible while everything else is up for grabs."

Shultz's statement reflected one of the roots of this development: conservatives' longstanding irritation at what they call U.S. passivity in the face of an active Soviet drive to foment revolution and win allies worldwide. In the 1970s, several have said, frustration soared over Soviet gains in the Third World and over the apparent reliance on covert action alone as a response.

"The '70s seem to have given the United States a reputation for unreliability," Donald L. Fortier, a National Security Council staff member responsible for political-military affairs, said in a February speech. He called the U.S. role then "reactive, just responding" to events. Conservatives and liberals both condemned covert action as an excuse to cover a void in policy.

"There was a time when armed insurgencies were almost by definition leftist and pro-Soviet. That's no longer true," Fortier said. "The trend of the '80s is liberation movements against pro-Soviet regimes."

William J. Casey, the director of central intelligence, noted the "good news" of widespread anticommunist insurgencies in a January speech. Moscow is "spending close to $8 billion a year to snuff out freedom" in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia and Nicaragua, Casey said.

The West, he added, need not match this Soviet effort: "Oppressed people want freedom and are fighting for it. They need only modest support . . . from nations which want to see freedom prevail . . . . "

There are insurgencies fighting leftist governments in all the countries Casey mentioned, plus Laos, Mozambique and Vietnam. Overtly, at least, the Reagan administration has moved as cautiously as any of its predecessors in providing aid, but it is starting its praise for the new insurgencies at the enthusiastic level that it took years to attain for antigovernment rebels in Nicaragua.

When U.S. officials first sought to justify helping the Nicaraguan contra (counterrevolutionary) forces in 1981, they did not say much to Congress about the goals of the insurgents or the need to remove Marxist-Leninists from the Nicaraguan government. Instead, they cited only a tactical need: to stop Nicaragua from aiding leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, where the Reagan administration had inherited a substantial American commitment to a government threatened by left-wing rebellion.

Gradually the terms changed. The goals became loftier. The contras are now "freedom fighters" who need U.S. backing to achieve a democratic and communist-free government in Managua. Similar descriptions are being applied to other countries' anticommunist insurgents from the start.

A senior State Department official traced the administration's new approach to President Carter's controversial advocacy of human rights. "We debated whether we had the right to dictate the form of another country's government. The bottom line was yes, that some rights are more fundamental than the right of nations to nonintervention, like the rights of individual people," the official said.

The current in-house debate, he said, has taken this a step further. "There's a growing sense that people's rights include the right to determine their own form of government; that is, we don't have the right to subvert a democratic government, but we do have the right against an undemocratic one."

In pursuit of that controversial proposition, the administration is already stepping gingerly into the twilight zone where it is not so easy to decide which rebel groups are genuinely democratic, and which leftist governments are beyond some nonviolent form of redemption.

"What we're trying to understand is what are the essential traits distinguishing one group of freedom fighters from another," said Sen. Robert W. Kasten Jr. (R-Wis.), opening a May 8 hearing on the subject before his Senate Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.

Rep. Stephen J. Solarz, a liberal New York Democrat, offered six possible criteria, arguing that aid should be considered for groups fighting noncommunist repressive governments as well as communist or Soviet-backed regimes.

The rebel group should be indigenous to the country, he said, and resisting a foreign occupier rather than an established, recognized government. It should have broad regional and international support that its government lacks, as well as backing in the United States. And U.S. military support should advance a significant American objective as well as enhance the prospects for a negotiated settlement.

Under these guidelines, Solarz said, aid to the contras is not justified, because the Sandinista government of Nicaragua is not a foreign occupation force. Aid to the African National Congress against South Africa and to the UNITA rebels in Angola is ruled out for the same reason, he said.

But Solarz sponsored the proposal for $5 million in overt military aid to noncommunist Cambodian insurgents that has been zooming through Congress, because that group meets his standards, he said.

In what several officials called the clearest statement yet of the administration's position, Richard L. Armitage, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told Kasten's hearing, "the enemy of our enemy will be assured of our friendship if he shares our values in his opposition to our enemy . . . . Not every group that professes anticommunism deserves our support."

But he avoided listing criteria, saying the decisions must be made on a case-by-case basis. "The only real issue here is the type of support which should be offered" -- overt or covert, guns or medicine, money or food. It should come in conjunction with social reform efforts and after consultation with U.S. allies, and should include consideration of the effect on U.S.-Soviet relations, he said.

"Once we have extended aid, the recipients should have a reasonable expectation that the aid will continue," Armitage said. "The struggle of anticommunist groups takes place within and affects an international context in which the stakes are very high."

Noel C. Koch, Armitage's principal deputy, said in an interview that Kasten's hearing was "a watershed in the policy process" and that Armitage's statement is about as far as one can go in spelling out criteria for groups worthy of U.S. aid. "When you come up with a doctrine and announce it to the world and it's definitive, it's also vulnerable" to damage from cases that don't quite fit, he said.

"Basically we're supporting people trying to live in freedom and according to democratic norms," he said. "That's about as inclusive as you can get . . . without creating rigidities that are exclusionary."

Kasten is considering writing legislation to set up a "freedom fighters' fund" that would be readily available to help resistance groups worldwide, once criteria are set, according to aides.

Sens. Gordon J. Humphrey (R-N.H.) and Malcolm Wallop (R-Wyo.) have proposed that the White House set up a presidential coordinating office "to look for and catalogue opportunities to advance the cause of freedom fighters around the world, to make policy proposals and . . . make sure the bureaucracy carries them out," as Humphrey put it.

An aide to Wallop said presidential aide Patrick J. Buchanan apparently liked the idea, but that there was resistance from the National Security Council and the CIA.

There is also resistance from the State Department, all the branches of the armed forces and the Agency for International Development to the idea of an "insurgency czar," according to Richard Shultz, a professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, who has written extensively on the idea for the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

Koch said it is still too early in the policy process to establish any central control. "You can't create a structure and set it on top of an embryonic consciousness," he said.

NEXT: U.S. aids two insurgencies