SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) _ A vanished ex-CIA officer described as a friendly, ''dedicated family man'' is being sought by federal agents on charges of plotting to sell defense secrets to a foreign power.

Edward Lee Howard, 33, disappeared from his job, home and family here 13 days ago, just ahead of FBI counterintelligence agents who searched his house.

He has been charged with conspiracy to deliver national defense information to an unspecified foreign government which U.S. sources, demanding anonymity, say is the Soviet Union.

Howard was last seen Sept. 20 when he abruptly left his job as an economic analyst for the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee. Authorities believe he flew from Albuquerque to Dallas and then to Austin, Texas, on Sept. 22.

The next day, FBI agents went to his house looking for him but he was not there. Agents returned later in the week, on Sept. 27, with search warrants seeking code pads, greeting cards with microdots, microfiche, recording and transmittal equipment, documents that identify foreign espionage agents, payments made to agents, telephone contacts with agents and travel records, according to the warrants.

A U.S. official said Howard is probably one of two ex-CIA officials identified as Soviet agents by Vitaly Yurchenko, a ranking KGB official who recently defected in Rome.

The espionage charges were filed in a federal arrest warrant issued Sept. 23 in Albuquerque. Four days later, Howard was charged with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for violating probation on his 1984 conviction in a Santa Fe gun-brandishing incident.

The FBI, which disclosed the charges after searching the house and questioning Howard's friends and co-workers, said Wednesday he worked for the CIA from January 1981 through June 1983. State Department records say his last post was at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, where he was listed as a budget analyst for the State Department. A State Department official who would not be identified said Howard was to have been sent to the Soviet capital, and the planned move was entered into agency records before officials decided not to send Howard. The records were never corrected because of a bureaucratic oversight, the official said.

At the State Department, deputy spokesman Charles Redman said Howard was never an employee of the State Department and never worked at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

Other U.S. officials, who asked not to be identified, said Howard was fired by the CIA in 1983 but they were uncertain of the reason. They added that Howard probably was recruited by the Soviets at about the time his service as a federal employee was ending.

Two federal sources in Washington confirmed that the FBI had been watching Howard's house before he disappeared.

One government source said Justice officials were upset that Howard had slipped away.

But a federal law enforcement source said the agents were there not to keep constant watch on Howard but merely for a spot check of his habits and other details that might be helpful if an arrest was made later.

''The agents had no arrest warrant, and he could have told them to get lost,'' the law enforcement source said.

The government source said Howard knew agents were interested in him because they had gone to his house before he fled, but while he was away, and his wife had let them conduct an informal look around the house.

Rep. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., said today that at his request Rep. Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, has agreed to hold a hearing next week on Yurchenko's reported disclosures concerning Americans.

''I'm extremely concerned about the potential damage to national security,'' Richardson said today, alluding to Howard's reported access to the Los Alamos laboratory.

A native of New Mexico, Howard grew up traveling the world with his Air Force father and was fluent in Spanish and German. After college he joined the Peace Corps, where he met his wife, Mary, and served from August 1972 to August 1974 in The Dominican Republic and Colombia. He worked for the Agency for International Development from 1976-1979.

''When we first heard the rumors, we laughed at how people would jump to that conclusion because of what he did before,'' said Dave Swerdling, an economic analyst with the state Finance Department.

''He was the easiest person we found to work with from the third floor (the Legislature's portion of the Capitol),'' Swerdling said. ''He did his job and he did it well.''

Another analyst, David Abbe, said Howard had traveled far and frequently for the state and had worked with non-classified energy analysts at nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is involved in weapons reasearch for the Department of Energy.

Abbey said he called Mrs. Howard on Sept. 23 and she didn't know her husband's whereabouts. Mrs. Howard left two days later on a previously scheduled trip to visit her family in suburban Minneapolis.

In Minneapolis on Wednesday, Mrs. Howard's father, Evar Cedarleaf, said his daughter was surprised and upset by her husband's disappearance. ''She has no idea where he is,'' said Cedarleaf.

Howard ''was a friendly person in his professional dealings, but his private life was very private,'' Abbey said. Friends and co-workers called him a ''dedicated family man'' who enjoyed hunting and flying his remote- controlled model airplane, and spent much time with his 2-year-old son, Lee.

Mary Howard returned to Santa Fe late Tuesday, reportedly went to her job on Wednesday and declined to give any comment to reporters at her home.

Howard was arrested Feb. 26, 1984, after a fight in which he aimed a gun at a man and fired a shot through the victim's car roof. In April 1984, he pleaded guilty to three felony counts of aggravated battery and was given five years' probation.