The words were bouncing off the walls of the House Judiciary Committe hearing room, the old charged words like "executive privilege," "attorney-client privilege," "stonewalling," "perjury," "criminal conspiracy" and "subpoenaing documents."

In the witness chair sat Elliot L. Richardson, polysyllabic and distinguished as ever, talking, as only a martyr can, about rectitude in government. On the dais sat three committee members who voted to impeach Richard M. Nixon on the heavy, historic night of July 27, 1974.

But it wasn't about Watergate. It was about a new case of confrontation between the executive and the Congress, this time between an attorney general, Dick Thornburgh, who doesn't really need to get involved, and a prickly, irreverent Judiciary subcommittee chairman, Jack Brooks (D-Tex.).

This is the case of Inslaw, a tangled tale about a software company done wrong by the Justice Department, in the time of Edwin Meese III. The story line is complicated, but the theme is unrelenting and unrelieved government malevolence. The victim, William A. Hamilton, president of Inslaw (named after the old nonprofit Institute for Law and Social Research), calls it "organized piracy by the U.S. government." He was driven into bankruptcy by an unjust Justice Department.

Hamilton and his wife, Nancy, the company's vice president, sat at the table with Richardson and Charles Work, former president of the D.C. Bar. Behind the Hamiltons were three of their five children. They looked the picture of the model, high-tech American family. In March 1982, they happily signed a $10 million contract with the Justice Department for their software product, which enables the department to keep track of large numbers of legal cases.

Almost immediately, their troubles began, problems that Richardson said in his immaculate diction "seemed capable of resolution." William Hamilton said they were "engineered, sham contract disputes" staged by former assistant attorney general D. Lowell Jensen. The Justice Department stopped payment and advised Hamilton to sell out to a thug, who warned him he had "ways to make you sell." Jensen, says Hamilton, was elbowing him aside so he could put through "a massive sweetheart contract" to benefit friends of Ronald Reagan.

The matter is still in the courts. Nothing, however, can explain the curious conduct of Thornburgh, who is refusing on a claim of the "attorney work-product privilege" and the "attorney-client privilege" some 200 confidential documents, which Brooks says he needs.

Since all of the chicanery occurred during the regime of Meese, Mr. Conflict-of-Interest Himself, Thornburgh's obduracy is bizarre. By withholding documents, he invites comparison with the bad old days of Nixon, when intrigue and backstabbing and perjury were standard government operating procedure.

If Thornburgh is holding back on principle -- he is notoriously anti-disclosure -- he has to be a fanatic, because the Justice Department says this is just a little contract flap. He makes it awfully hard to believe he is not covering up a potentially explosive scandal on the Watergate scale. We must hope the shredding machines are under strict surveillance at Justice.

Richardson speculated that "a comprehensive investigation would only expose criminal activity on the part of Justice employees and make the department liable for large sums of money." Richardson gave the department's Office of Public Integrity a list of 30 witnesses who could testify about the plot against the Hamiltons. The office contacted just one.

To make things look worse, Thornburgh treated Richardson like a dog. He refused to meet him, did not answer three letters. Why?

The war against the Hamiltons was conducted on all fronts. The bankruptcy judge who took Inslaw's side in bankrupcty proceedings was not reappointed. George Francis Bason Jr. told his sad and gripping story to the subcommittee. He noticed early on, he said, that the Justice Department had lied, cheated and stolen. He found its witnesses incredible and perjurious. He found in the department's ethics officer "a willful blindness to the obvious."

The aggrieved Bason, a master of detail, said he thinks Justice tampered with the merit selection process.

Rep. Tom Campbell (R-Calif.), youthful and earnest, asked the judge if he had proof of this dirty work.

"No," said Bason, who has had trouble finding work -- he's "too controversial" for large law firms -- "but you have a dead body, and you have a motive."

That's a pretty good summation of the Inslaw case, and it's odd that Dick Thornburgh is practically insisting that it is the only way to look at it.