Sister Dianna Ortiz just doesn't understand the ways of Washington. The Ursuline nun has gone to war with her government's intelligence agencies, who she suspects were involved in her hideous encounter with Guatemalan security forces in 1989. They kidnapped, tortured and raped her and she is trying to pry out of the capital's archives the documents that could tell her why and with whose help.

She wants to know why the American ambassador of the time, Ambassador Thomas Stroock, referred to her ordeal as "an alleged incident"; why an embassy aide described her as "a lesbian involved in a lover's quarrel"; and why her torture and rape were overseen by "Alejandro," a man she said spoke English with an American accent and, when her identity as a U.S. citizen was revealed, said he would drive her to a friend of his at the U.S. Embassy. Her captors used her body as an ashtray, she had over 100 cigarette burns, she was raped repeatedly, while the mysterious "Alejandro" looked on -- and reminded her they had filmed her while she was forced to stab another inmate at the clandestine prison.

Sister Dianna may not look as if she could go the distance with intransigent and unrepentant officials who are still fighting the Cold War -- and the truth. She is as frail as a wand, having lost 25 pounds during a five-week vigil and fast in Lafayette Square. But she is a compelling presence. She has huge, blazing dark eyes and a prose style that cuts through the inflated and billowing evasions of those who are engaged so tirelessly in discrediting her.

"My crime," she said at one point during her packed news conference at the J.W. Marriott Hotel, "was to teach little Mayan children to read and write."

National security adviser Anthony Lake went to Lafayette Square to visit her several times, and mediated some problems with the Park Police. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton invited her to the White House and promised help in freeing the documents. Sister Dianna was lately given about a thousand papers relating to her case. A reference to "Alejandro" was followed by three pages of redacted material. She said, in her soft, direct way, that she was "disappointed."

But she doesn't understand a basic fact of life in Washington. She may have thought of sympathy in the light of revelations about the CIA's shameful part in the political murder of several prominent figures in Guatemala: Michael DeVine, an American citizen who kept an inn in a remote corner of the country, and Efrain Bamaca, a rebel leader married to American attorney Jennifer Harbury. There was considerable uproar at the time, and two senior CIA officials were fired, a most unusual occurrence.

But what Sister Dianna has not grasped is that the CIA exemplifies a great truth about life in Washington. If you goof up really spectacularly, you can expect to be rewarded. Small mistakes will ruin your life, but mega-blunders will not. The spooks have pulled some boners in their time -- like getting it dead wrong about the Soviet economy and getting on the wrong side of most of the Third World's bloody arguments. But nothing compares to the Aldrich Ames debacle. You might have thought that, combined with the fact that the end of the Cold War left them nothing to do but infuriate the French with some clumsy industrial spying, their goose was cooked.

You would be wrong. The CIA got John Deutch, a throaty academic with high elbows and a history at the Pentagon, to peddle their fish on Capitol Hill, and he is the year's success story. He played hard to get and insisted on Cabinet status, before he got the job. Congress, always respectful of bullies, keeps throwing more power his way. An agency that is a prime candidate for the attentions of Jack Kevorkian has been born again and its chief is reviving all the absurd arguments about journalists as CIA agents, and acting as if the Cold War were still raging.

In a campaign year, nobody will challenge him but somebody like Sister Dianna. The Republicans dote on spy agencies; inside the three-piece suits and the ledger mentalities beat hearts that quicken at cloak-and-dagger intrigue. Besides, the CIA is living proof that the Cold War, its favorite jobs program, lives on.

As for the Democrats, they quiver at the thought of revisiting the old canard of being soft on defense. Bill Clinton would not cross them on anything. The Democrats are loving their new unity and harmony. If they can ditch the idea of human rights for China, they can forget it matters anywhere.

But Sister Dianna, who with the help of a research artist whom she met at the "Today" show now has sketches of her torturers, says she will never give up. It is easy to believe her. And she's much more convincing than John Deutch and has a far more powerful story to tell.