The government secrecy pledge that recently triggered protests and a lawsuit by a federal employes' union was used routinely for more than three years by dozens of agencies until it ran into problems at the Defense and State departments earlier this year.

As a result of the suit, Steven Garfinkel, director of the Information Security Oversight Office that oversees the secrecy pledge, sent letters to government agencies this week instructing them -- temporarily -- not to withdraw the security clearances of employes who refuse to sign the pledge.

Until early this year, Garfinkel said, most affected government agencies were in compliance and only seven employes in the government had refused to sign. He said the seven are continuing to negotiate over the pledge and not one has lost a security clearance or job.

"We've had no dead bodies in the last four years," Garfinkel said. "There's been a tremendous amount of smoke, but no one's yet found the fire."

The secrecy pledge, mandated by a 1983 national security directive from President Reagan, requires employes to promise not to disclose "classified" or "classifiable" information. Those who refuse to sign may lose their clearances and ultimately their jobs. The pledge requirement covers an estimated 3 1/2 million to 4 million government employes and contractors with security clearances and access to classified information.

Some 68 federal agencies are covered by the requirement. They range from the obvious (the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation) to the unlikely (the Farm Credit Administration and the Marine Mammal Commission).

Garfinkel, a career employe who has run the information security office at the General Services Administration since 1980, said that most agencies began collecting signatures in late 1983.

That year, he said, his office believed -- erroneously, it turned out -- that the Defense and State departments were already requiring employes and contractors with access to classified information to sign nondisclosure agreements. To save money, Garfinkel's office gave them authorization to require only new employes to sign the pledge, known as Standard Form 189.

"Then we discovered that most of the military and State Department employes had never signed any agreement," he said. "The ground rules shifted."

In 1984, Garfinkel said, he reached agreement with the two departments that they could take up to three years to sign up a majority of their employes.

"But when you give people a lot of time, sometimes they procrastinate," he said. "People keep asking why the problems are coming up now. The answer is that until 1987, the Air Force didn't get started."

By early this year, 48 of the 68 agencies were in compliance with the secrecy pledge requirement, Garfinkel said. Since then, the Air Force has brought its compliance rate up to about 90 percent, he said, but the Navy has signatures from only 20 percent of its required employes, the State Department from only 25 percent and the Transportation Department from less than 60 percent. At the Justice Department, on the other hand, all 36,000 employes with clearances have signed secrecy pledges with no refusals.

When the Air Force finally began asking for signatures on the secrecy agreements, it quickly ran into A. Ernest Fitzgerald, the well-known whistle-blower, who refused to sign. Fitzgerald said he has been joined by about 25 other Air Force employes who also are refusing to sign the secrecy agreement. Garfinkel has been told a group of Navy employes also will resist.

Fitzgerald said this week that he refused to sign because "it's illegal and unconstitutional. It would subject someone like me -- already a controversial person -- to being framed."

He said his major objection is to the portion of the pledge where employes promise not to disclose anything that may be "classifiable."

"They have steadfastly refused to define it clearly . . . . That's my major concern," he said.

The concept of "classifiable" information has also been criticized on Capitol Hill. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), for example, has said the term "could mean anything. It will have a chilling effect on those working for the government who will not disclose anything for fear that at a later date it might turn out to have been classified."

Garfinkel points out that a clarification of the definition, printed Aug. 11 in the Federal Register, further defines "classifiable" to mean information that was classified but "as a result of negligence, time constraints, error, lack of opportunity or oversight has not been marked as classified information." In addition, it specifies that a violation would occur only if the employe "knew or reasonably should have known" that the information was classified.

"We are not talking about anything we might decide in the future should be classified," Garfinkel said. "What we're talking about is information that is classified, but for some reason the classification markings have not been applied. And we're not saying you're liable for knowing it's classified. But if you know, or if you should know under a negligence standard, then you're liable."

But Fitzgerald said he is especially worried about Air Force policy that allows reclassification of information that has previously been declassified. And John Riley of the Project on Military Procurement, which is fighting the secrecy pledge requirement, pointed out that under Air Force regulations, "Things can be classified retroactively."

Fitzgerald said he believes one major problem is documents that have been classified for political reasons, not because of national security.

"We're not talking about targeting information for the MX missile. No one's going to disclose that. We're talking about political sleaze that's been classified to keep it secret," Fitzgerald said.

Referring to recent disclosures by Fawn Hall, the secretary for Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, a key figure in the Iran-contra scandal, Fitzgerald said, "{I} never asked our secretary to take out classified information under her clothes. {I've} never given classified information to the Iranian government."

Meanwhile, the Air Force has further fueled resistance by requiring secrecy pledges from employes who do not even have access to classified information. In cases where the employe refuses to sign, a notation is put in his or her file, making the employe ineligible for promotion to a job that would require a security clearance. The Air Force has been informed by Garfinkel's office that the practice is not covered under the Reagan directive.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 17 by the 150,000-member National Federation of Federal Employes after one of its Air Force members complained, seeks a declaratory judgment that the secrecy pledge is unconstitutional.

The American Civil Liberties Union has asked Garfinkel's office to narrow the definition of "classifiable" further, but has stopped short of calling the pledge requirement unconstitutional. Allan Adler, the ACLU's legislative counsel, said that "problems for whistle-blowers exist with or without the secrecy agreement" because there were already laws and regulations in place to deal with the unauthorized disclosure of classified information.

Garfinkel, who has signed a secrecy pledge himself, said there has been no decision on how long to wait before beginning to revoke security clearances of employes who refuse to sign the pledge, but the revocations may occur before the legal action is resolved.

He said he decided to hold off after the suit was filed because "we want to establish our good faith. We believe it's a legal requirement, and the courts will confirm that . . . . But we certainly haven't said we'll wait until the litigation is resolved."