For the new year, here's old business on my personal congressional wish list:

No matter how otherwise frustrating the inevitable 1988 presidential election bickering in Washington proves to be, passage of only one pending bill will ensure that at least something significant will have been achieved in the last session of Congress. That's

S. 1721, the so-called Cohen/Boren bill.

Admittedly, Cohen/Boren is not a household term, but it ought to be. It addresses a critical national issue: proliferating U.S. covert intelligence operations, with the Iran-contra affair as the latest terrible example.

"In the last year or so, we have witnessed the recurrence of an all too frequent problem: covert activities that get out of control and embarrass the nation and undermine our credibility and our capability to exercise world leadership," Clark M. Clifford told the Senate intelligence committee in strongly backing Cohen/Boren a few days before Christmas. "Moreover, this problem is getting worse, the costs are getting higher and the damage is getting greater. For this reason, I say that, unless we can control covert activities once and for all, we may wish to abandon them."

No one is more qualified to speak on this subject than Clifford, key counselor of many presidents and former secretary of defense.

In 1946, President Harry S Truman asked Clifford to study the idea of establishing the first peacetime intelligence agency in American history. Out of that assignment came the drafting of the National Security Act of 1947, which, when passed by the Congress, created the Central Intelligence Agency. For 40 years, that act has remained the only statutory authority for covert operations.

Clifford and others who drafted that original act were aware that in giving the nation a regular secret operational capacity for the first time they were dealing with a new, potentially risky enterprise. While Soviet expansionism and the Cold War's advent justified taking bold actions, Clifford worried about the United States creating a Frankenstein -- a monster that, in the name of safeguarding U.S. democracy, would jeopardize basic democratic principles. As Clifford put it, "There was concern that our nation not resort to the tactics of our enemies in order to resist them."

With that in mind, the act contained a carefully worded "catchall" clause providing that the CIA shall "perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct."

These were intended to be separate and distinct from normal CIA activities, Clifford recalled in his recent testimony, "and they were intended to be restricted in scope and purpose. The catchall clause was crafted to contain significant limiting language: 'affecting the national security.' "

That original limiting intent has been repeatedly thwarted. Clifford again:

"We have seen an egregious deviation from the original conception of how that act was supposed to function. Covert activities have become numerous and widespread, practically constituting a routine component of our foreign policy. And with these activities have come repeated instances of embarrassing failure -- where the goals of the operations themselves were not fulfilled and unforeseen setbacks occurred instead. I believe that on balance covert activities have harmed this country more than they have helped us. Certainly efforts to control these activities, to keep them within their intended scope and purpose, have failed."

Hence, Cohen/Boren in the wake of the Iran-contra debacle and the failure of Congress to exercise its proper constitutional oversight role.

The bill would require the president to sign a written "finding" describing the particulars of a covert activity to Congress within 48 hours of approving it -- a change in law opposed by the Reagan administration. If he chose to limit notification to the smaller group of eight congressional leaders, the president would have to explain why and give notice of any significant changes in any covert activity.

These are important changes, but in Clifford's expert opinion they don't go far enough. He'd add provisions automatically cutting off any funds for covert activities if the president failed to follow the prescribed 48-hour notification timetable -- and also ensuring that criminal penalties would face any government employe who tried to get around the ban against spending funds for covert activities, as happened in the Iran-contra affair.

Pass it, with the suggested Clifford amendments. It's in the national interest, for 1988 and beyond.