NEW YORK (AP) _ When investigators trade notes about the mysterious and bizarre strands of the BCCI scandal - the links to foreign spy networks, the secret investments, the staggering loans - the name Sheik Kamal I. Adham invariably crops up.

The millionaire businessman and confidant to Saudi kings is waist-deep in allegations and debt following the seizure of Bank of Credit and Commerce International last summer.

The 62-year-old Adham, founder of Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency, is staying far from the public eye as the scandal unfolds.

The Federal Reserve Board charged in July that Adham was one of several front men BCCI used for its secret 1982 takeover of First American Bankshares Inc. Revelations of that deal forced Clark Clifford, and his partner, Robert Altman, to resign recently from First American, Washington's largest banking company.

Adham borrowed $13.1 million from BCCI in 1982 to acquire a stake in First American's holding company. He turned a fast profit later that year when BCCI bought 79 percent of Adham's stake in the company for $27.09 million, the Fed said. The bank later paid Adham an extra $2 million for his role.

The First American deal apparently was just one example of Adham's intimate dealings with BCCI. Banking sources in Abu Dhabi, the home of BCCI's owners, said Adham owes the bank $313 million in loans.

BCCI, founded in 1972 by Pakistanis, grew to be perhaps the biggest Third World bank ever, with operations in 69 countries. International bank regulators seized BCCI July 5 after an auditor's report said it engaged in massive fraud and money laundering through a web of false accounts, kickbacks, hidden deposits, and shell companies.

Adham didn't respond to several requests for an interview.

''My father is out, and he is not talking to reporters,'' Adham's son, Faisal, said by telephone at his father's home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. ''But he will (comment) at the right moment.''

Plato Cacheris, Adham's Washington-based attorney, denied Fed allegations that Adham acted as a front man for BCCI.

''Everybody who knows him says that he would never knowingly involve himself in any criminal activity,'' Cacheris said.

Many Fed charges against Adham are based on BCCI documents, which Cacheris said are inaccurate. BCCI has been accused of altering documents to hide loan losses from auditors.

Foreign diplomats who dealt with Adham say they knew nothing of his BCCI connections and say his reported involvement in one of the world's most extensive frauds is out of character.

''He was man of such substance. There was no reason for him to be underhanded in any way,'' said Raymond Close, the Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Saudi Arabia from 1970 to 1977. Adham was ''a man who cared so much about his reputation,'' Close said.

''Certainly, when I was there there were no negative stories circulating about him,'' said Walter Cutler, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1983 to 1985.

Adham, educated at Cambridge University in England, is the half-brother of Effat, the favorite wife of the late King Faisal. Adham was a confidant to King Faisal, who ruled Saudi Arabia for 11 years until he was assassinated in 1975 by a mentally-deranged cousin.

In the early 1960s, Adham rose to power when Faisal picked him to create a security agency to protect the royal family against political adversaries. Adham set up Saudi Arabia's intelligence organization - the Foreign Liaison Bureau, similar to the CIA; and the General Intelligence Directorate, akin to the FBI. Adham headed the foreign intelligence agency until 1977.

William Quandt, a staff member of the National Security Council during the Carter Administration, recalled Adham had a reputation of ''keeping his mind open to the Egyptians at a time when their official relationship (with Saudi Arabia) may not have been so great.''

''He had good personal contacts and a personal relationship with (former Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat,'' said Quandt, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research organization.

Adham helped convince Sadat to expel 15,000 Soviet military advisers shortly before the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War with Israel, according to Close and Saudi sources.

''He handled a lot of King Faisal's diplomatic relations with a lot of heads of state on a private basis,'' Close said. ''And he was extremely effective at that because he was a very skilled and very cultured diplomat.''

Adham's enormous wealth grew as he used his Middle East connections to help U.S. defense contractors and other businesses gain entry to the region.

''He seemed to be doing very well in the private sector,'' recalled Cutler, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

In 1981, Adham told the Fed his net worth was $255 million. In 1990, Saudi sources estimated his business empire at well beyond $1 billion.

Adham's clients included Lockheed Corp., Northrop Corp., and Boeing Co. He was also the main middleman in Saudi-financed French arms deal for Egypt, according to Saudi sources and press reports.

In the mid-1970s, the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated questionable payments of millions of dollars by Boeing to foreign clients. The case was settled in 1978 when Boeing - while not admitting to wrongdoing - vowed not to violate securities laws in the future, according to Regardie's, a Washington business magazine.

Published reports in the late 1970s said Adham received millions from Boeing, though there are differing estimates of the exact amount.

Close, the former CIA station chief, benefitted from Adham's contacts. Adham arranged for National Chemical Industries to sponsor Close so he could open a consultancy in Saudi Arabia to advise foreign businesses coming to the kingdom.

Close denied a 1977 Washington Post article that said he was on Adham's payroll following the CIA agent's 1977 retirement.

One of Adham's current business deals involves a joint venture between a Dallas oil and mining company, Arabian Shield Development Co., and the National Mining Co. Adham is a major shareholder in Arabian Shield and a vice president in National Mining.

The two companies have developed a mine in southwestern Saudi Arabia with rich reserves of zinc, copper, gold and silver, said Jack Crichton, Arabian Shield's chairman and chief executive officer. Total ore production is estimated at 1,500 tons a year over the next 17 years, said Crichton.

The joint venture, partially financed by Saudi government loans, is expected to begin production soon.

''Kamal (Adham) has always been very straight with us and very proper,'' said Crichton. Because of Adham's close ties to the Saudi kingdom, ''he's been very helpful to us over the years,'' said Crichton.

Crichton, like others interviewed, said he knew nothing of Adham's involvement with BCCI.

Richard Helms, former CIA director and U.S. ambassador to Iran, said Western bank regulators and businesses don't understand the business culture of the Middle East. Adham probably viewed his relationship with BCCI in the First American takeover as nothing out of the ordinary.

''I think you would have a hard time trying to get Mr. Adham to say he was doing anything wrong at all,'' Helms said. ''He was just trying to buy a bank.''

End Adv Sunday, Sept. 15