The idea, as expressed by Rpesident Carter last year, was to channel more federal money to minority business. But by the time the memo had bounced down through the federal bureaucracy, the Baltimore office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service got quite a different message.

The internal memo put out in the Baltimore office this fall instructed all 17 agents to fill out a report every time they bought gasoline, noting whether or not the station where they bought gas were minority-owned.

There was one added catch: the agents were not allowed to ask if a minority-group member owned the station, for fear of offending.

Instead, they must "visually ascertain" if the station is minority-owned. The minorities mentioned in the memo were: Blacks Hispanics, Orientals, American Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts.

The memor struck the investigators at the Baltimore office as a little strange, but one supervisor commented, "You don't understand how the government works. You don't question a memo. If anything is in writing, you do it."

The reports written by the Baltimore agents are filtered back through the bureaucracy to the regional INS office in Burlington, Vt., then to the central INS office in Washington, then to the Department of Justice which oversees INS and seven other agencies.

From there the reports are sent to the Office of Management and Budget - the office that first translated Carter's request into memo form. Finally, OMB passes them on to a newly created Federal Procurement Data Center at the Department of Defense.

When the Baltimore memo with its instructions for collecting data was read to Lester A. Fettig, head of the government procurement program in OMB, he asked "What is this nonsense? Do you think anyone is really taking that seriously? That's ridiculous."

The director of the Federal Procurement Data Center in DOD, Joseph G. Cannata, said the Baltimore memo missed the point entirely.

"The point was, we wanted information on purchases which can be directed to minorities," Cannata said. "If you need gas, you're not going to drive around for 50 miles looking for a gas station with a sign saying, 'Amoco-minority owned.'"

The original OMB memo asked all federal agencies to fill out standard forms so the government could trace where $90 billion was spent each year for small purchases, Fettig said. That memo, written in February, contained a booklet on the data sought but it did not contain instructions on how the data would be collected. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, By William Coulter for The Washington Post