When Jimmy Carter was Mr. Outside, untainted by any Washington connection, he ran against stupid, arrogant, cover-up, corrupt government. As such, he had nothing but high praise, hopes and promises for bureaucrats with the guts to go public and tell about bad things in federalland.

Persons who do such are known generically as "whistle-blowers." (They come in all shapes, sizes, personalities and mental attitudes). Carter said some had bravely uncovered multi-million dollar cost overruns and taxpayer ripoffs and saved mothers and babies from bad drugs. If he was elected president, whistle-blowers would always have a friend in the White House, he said.

That was when he was Mr. Outside.

Now that Carter IS the government, he is, whether he likes the label or not, Mr. Inside. From there whistle-blowers look different.

The heirs of famous whistle-blowers, who bravely pointed out Nixonian warts and Ford flubs are now considered by some of the Carter team to be collective pains in the executive buttocks.

With apologies to John Donne, the Carter administration no longer asks for whom the whistle blows. It blows for (or against) them.

All this is by way of saying that an interesting exercise is taking place before the new federal agency created by Carter to protect whistle-blowers. The MSPB (Merit Systems Protection Board) was part of the Civil Service Reform Act that was told to make government better and more responsive and to protect workers with the same goals.

Since its birth in January, the MSPB and its aggressive Office of Special Counsel have been stepping on a lot of political toes. But its most critical test is now. The issue is whether the Justice Department is being unjust and, if so, whether a comparatively pipsqueak agency can tell the nation's chief law enforcement office it is jay-walking.

The specific question is whether the Justice Department was correct, or punitive, in transferring four federal marshals from Atlanta to Florida and Texas. Justice says the men were troublemakers who tried to disrupt the service and cover for their own shortcomings. Bad enough to be moved somewhere else, but not bad enough to be fired.

The marshals and the Office of Special Counsel claim the team is being busted up in the government's version of off-to-Siberia. They say the moves are in reprisal for charges that top Justice officials in Atlanta - including a political friend of the president's - were sometimes incompetent, racist, and permitted improper work conditions.

The marshals, under oath, alleged that dangerous federal prisoners (one a convicted skyjacker) were transported on airplanes without handcuffs so airline crews would not know the seriousness of their crimes. They also claimed - to newspapers and the MSPB - that officials winked at drinking on the job, that some prisoners were mistreated and that racist attitudes were apparent by some top officials.

Justice counters that the men got fair hearings, and that transfers happen all the time. They said the four marshals were disruptive and out to get bosses who wouldn't tolerate their attitudes. Maybe yes. Maybe no. That is the same language the government - whether run by Republicans or Democrats - often has used about whistle-blowers.

It will be up to the MSPB to decide if the transfers were justified, or should be rescinded. If the latter, it will be up to the MSPB to find and use the muscle (and money) to push the case and enforce its order and protective authority.