According to Washington folklore, presidents are but small dogs wagged by a giant bureaucratic tail. Yet buried in the secret files of the Civel Service Commission is evidence that Richard Nixon gained control of the great tail and that, for an awful moment, the bureaucracy played his Watergate game. This is the Watergate story that, under Jimmy Carter, is still being covered up.

Nixon came to power with the conviction that the millions who composed the permanent government were suspect. They, therefore, were given minimal initiative and were not trusted with sensitive information in their areas. Indeed, Nixon sought not only to denigrate but to subvert the regular institutions of government. His eager aides developed an elaborate system of rewards and punishments, with the intention of "politicizing" the bureaucracy.

The concept violated the spirit, and in some instances the letter, of the civil service laws. So a White House memo, dated Dec.23, 1971, suggested that they "stop calling it 'politicizing the executive branch' and, instead, call it something like strengthening the government's responsiveness." Thereafter, the scheme became known euphemistically as the Responsiveness Program.

It was frighteningly successful. The Interna Revenue Service harassed Nixon's enemies with tax audits. The Central Intelligence Agency kept at least one Nixon nemesis under illegal surveillance. The Small Business Administration granted contracts to political favorites. Other federal agencies conducted investigations, fixed cases, jugled personeel rosters and engaged in backroom shenanigans.

Those abuses and improprieties were condoned by the Civil Service Commission, which should have stopped them. When the Watergate bubble finally burst, the commission conducted its own systematic coverup - complete with alleged perjury and destruction of government records that also marked the Nixon effort.

This Little Watergate was discovered by the Democrats when they took over the Civil Service Commission in January 1977. Jule Sugarman, a member of Carter's transition team, submitted a secret report to the White House implicating commission officials, both past and present. The report was quietly locked up, and Sugarman was appointed vice chairman of the commission.

The Sugarman study, known as the "Briefing Book," contains detailed profiles and data on the activities of the 20 highest career executives at the commission, together with allegations that some of them violated the law. But somehow, most career violators have succeeded in avoiding the Watergate ax.

Only the top FBI lawbreakers, for example, will be brought to justice; the charges have been dropped against the rank-and-file. The CIA has actually refused to identify the agents who conducted illegal surveillance and engaged in other unlawful activities. Likewise, the Civil Service Commission persuaded the Carter crowd to bury the Briefing Book.

Reps. John Moss (D-Calif.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) formally requested a copy of the report in a letter to White House counsel Robert Lipshutz. "If our request is not honored," they warned, "then we shall regretfully have to resort to a congressional subpoena."

Carter underlings are trying to figure out a plausible way to defy the demand. Sources tell us that the White House might even try to invoke a Nixonesque "executive privilege" claim if Moss and Dingell go through with the subpoena. Yet despite the security precautions, we have had access to part of the report.

At a time when Carter is pushing for civil-service reforms, the Sugarman study raises the embarassing alternative that he could do better by cleaning out the wrongdoers entrenched on the commission's payroll. For the book makes the sweeping charges that allegations against commission officials involve "possible perjury, attempted coverup of CSC complicity in agency merit-system violations, destruction of government documents, failure to report the destruction of records and CSC internal violations of merit principles and its Equal Opportunity program - followed by attempted coverups."

Getting down to specifics and naming names, the report charges that the commission dropped charges against officials of three agencies - the General Services Administration, Housing and Urban Development Department and Small Business Administration - for illegally passing out patronage jobs.

High-ranking CSC officials swore under oath that the charges weren't pursued solely because the commission had inadequate disciplinary powers. Yet the Briefing Book contains an internal memo cautioning against prose-cuting the other agencies because it would focus attention "upon the area of the commission's own[improper] past practices."

The suppressed report observes: "The question is what really led to CSC's dropping its charges against the agency officials. Was perjury committed?"

Footnote: Sugarman denied that he or other CSC officials were sitting on any evidence.