If you wonder why federal and military brass play it safe, consider what almost happened to an Army base commander who let his civilian workers go home early on Christmas Eve 1982.

For his deed he almost wound up picking up cigarette butts at the North Pole. It took two years to "clear" him of his alleged offense.

This is what happened: On Dec. 23, 1983 (the last work day before Christmas), the commander of Fort Sheridan in Illinois released the installation's several hundred civilian workers at noon. He said it was a good will gesture. Almost everybody was pleased.

The one person who wasn't pleased by the Christmas Eve gift was the base's civilian personnel officer.

He said the action was "a humbug" that violated federal personnel rules. Generally speaking, it is up to the president to determine whether employes get bonus holidays, but local civilian and military bosses have some discretionary authority.

Once it became a federal case, the matter got bucked up the chain of command until it reached the Pentagon. The Pentagon, naturally, passed it on to the General Accounting Office. The GAO is one of those places where the buck stops. It is the congressional agency that handles personnel squabbles that nobody else would touch with a 10-foot swagger stick.

Two years and one day after the incident, the GAO issued a ruling. It was released this week. What the GAO said, in effect, is that the personnel officer was reading the Federal Personnel Manual in the manner of Ebenezer Scrooge. The GAO said the military commander did have the authority to do what he did. The decision said, "The employes in question are entitled to administrative leave -- every one of them." You could almost hear Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit cheer!