A secret Defense Intelligence Agency program that posed tough military questions to a handful of full-time, salaried psychics was kept alive for years at the insistence of a few senators and a congressional staff aide despite opposition from senior military intelligence officials, congressional and military sources said yesterday.

One staff member -- C. Richard D'Amato, an intelligence specialist on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense -- was credited by four sources with almost single-handedly ensuring the defeat of repeated efforts by the DIA's leadership to kill the psychic program.

D'Amato, who was assigned to the committee staff by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), a former Appropriations Committee chairman, confirmed in an interview yesterday that he kept the program alive because four to six senators had expressed unusual and sustained interest in its potential, and because similar psychic research was being pursued by the Soviet Union, China and "some of our European allies."

"I wanted this to continue because I was responding to the desire of members {of the Senate} who came to me," D'Amato said. "This was fairly unusual. You don't normally get that much interest" in intelligence programs that consumed a relatively small amount of money, in this case, less than $1 million annually for the past seven years.

The survival for roughly two decades of the $20 million military psychic program, known most recently as "Stargate," illustrates the power that Congress can wield over the leadership of large federal bureaucracies when lawmakers and staff form a tight alliance with the managers of small, threatened programs, according to the congressional and military sources.

It also illustrates how federal endeavors that arouse passionate support from their participants -- such as those who trained or managed the military psychics -- are sometimes able to survive repeated institutional blows. In this case, the psychic program outlived attempts to kill it by two DIA directors, as well as extremely critical evaluations by the National Research Council and the DIA inspector general.

Defending the program, D'Amato said that keeping a handful of psychics employed by the military to try to answer difficult questions pertinent to national security "didn't make any more or less sense than a variety of programs we conducted in the intelligence arena. . . . I would say that if the Russians hadn't had such a big program, we wouldn't {have kept it alive}."

D'Amato said he could not identify the senators both on and off the committee who expressed so much enthusiasm for the program because his discussions with lawmakers are confidential. Byrd's office issued a statement by the senator disavowing any current interest in the program and stating that D'Amato's efforts to keep the program alive have been made on behalf of subcommittee members, not Byrd.

Byrd also made clear that the program's disclosure this week appears to have doomed its future. "This program is a throwback to the Cold War era when the United States felt the need to compete with similar research engaged in by the Soviet Union," Byrd said. "In these tight budgetary times, we have far better uses for our scarce federal dollars."

Subcommittee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and senior minority member Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) were both briefed annually on all intelligence programs, including the psychic research program, congressional sources said. A former military official familiar with the program said Inouye in particular "was interested and willing to take some risks" to pursue the program.

Inouye said through a spokesman yesterday that he had no comment on the program "at this time," while a spokesman for Stevens did not respond to several calls.

The classified psychic research program consists of three parts, according to a report released this week by the CIA. One portion has been devoted to scientific research aimed at determining whether and how the psychic technique called "remote viewing" works; another portion has tried to figure out the type of parapsychology work being conducted by foreign governments; and the third involved supporting as many as six psychics at a time at Fort Meade, Md.

Retired Gen. Harry E. Soyster, who directed DIA from 1988 to 1991 and earlier served as the head of the Army's Intelligence and Security Command, said in an interview that he does not dismiss the existence of psychic phenomena outright. "There was some solid medical opinion that thought there was potential there," he said.

But Soyster said that he had tried to kill the program on at least two occasions because, as a military officer focused on operational matters, asking a group of psychics to supply vital intelligence was "not my bag." He said he could never have walked into the office of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and said he "wanted to conduct a rescue based on this {type of information}. It would have been the last time I walked in there."

Soyster said that in the early 1980s, "there was a valid concern . . . that the Soviets were into a similar program." But he said a 1989 report by the DIA inspector general concluded that the U.S. effort "had not reached operational status" and should be halted, a recommendation he accepted.

"I thought the thing had gone away," only to discover several years later that the work persisted, Soyster said. "It had congressional support and a life of its own."

Soyster's successor at DIA, Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., also tried to kill the psychic research program by omitting its funding in proposals to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, military and congressional sources said. But a former Senate aide said D'Amato repeatedly persuaded the committee to add earmarked funds for the program even though "there was no proof that it ever worked."

"He was adamant," the former aide said of D'Amato. "Someone sold him on this. I never heard anyone else say this was important. Everybody wanted to please him because he speaks with Byrd. We didn't want to offend the guy, because we really needed his help on the big-ticket intelligence items."

D'Amato confirmed that "that kind of discussion {about horse-trading of such programs} goes on across the board," and that the appropriations subcommittee was persistently more interested in the psychic research effort than the authorizing committee. "We're talking pretty small bananas here," he said.