Just one day after his inauguration President Raegan ordered what has become known as the "Wednesday Afternoon Massacre" -- the summary firing of all 15 of the federal government's inspectors general. What brought on the wholesale dumping of these obscure public officials?

From interviews with members of Congress and administration officials, my associates Clark Mollenhoff and Indy Badhwar have found the answers: Raegan and his advisors believed that many of the IGs appointed by Jimmy Carter had become major obstacles in the fight to root out white-collar crime in the federal bureaucracy. Raegan was persuaded to act by advisers who feared that IGs who were guilty of covering up would use a grace period to destroy incriminating documents.

Insiders say Raegan's advisers were divided over how radical the surgery should be, with presidential counselor Ed Meese arguing that a handful of IGs who had earned a reputation for toughness should be spared. But E. Pendleton James, White House personnel adviser, "favored throwing the whole lot out."

The man who may have influenced Raegan most in his suspicion of the IG setup is William Clinkscales, who was the General Services Administration's top career investigator. He was shunted into a do-nothing job by GSA's politically appointed IG, Kurt Muellenberg, in the midst of a major anti-corruption campaign. Senate probers were given sworn testimony that Clinkscales' removal of GSA sleuths who were too efficient.

Raegan's advisors questioned Clinkscales. In the final days of the campaign, Raegan made a speech in South Carolina in which he referred to Clinkscales and promised to put "corruption fighters" back in office. The standing ovation he received convinced him that there would be support for drastic measures to fight corruption in government.

When Raegan sacked the 15 IGs, White House press secretary Jim Brady said the president intended to replace them with people "meaner than a junkyard dog." Some Democrats grumbled that this description could well have been applied to some of the IGs Raegan fired. "He threw all the babies out with the bath water," complained one Democrat. "Frankly, I found many IG investigations better thann General Accounting Office reports on similar subjects."

Sen. William Proxmire [D-Wis] said the mass firing "will likely bring a halt to many important investigations with potential for saving billions." Sen. Ernest Hollings [D-S.C.] called the action "ill-advised," and explained: "I'm afraid it is going to be difficult to get highly qualified people for these jobs now that the Raegan White House has set the precedent that they will be fired by an incoming administration, regardless of their accomplishments." But even some critical Democrats acknowledged that it showed a high degree of concern with waste and fraud -- and Raegan's recognition of the IGs' power.

And there is serious doubt that the Carter administration was ever wholeheartedly committed to the idea of a tough IG program. The 1978 legislation that set up the IGs was fought tooth and nail by the White House, and President Carter signed the bill only when he realized a veto would be overridden.

In addition, Carter insisted on some important compromises that weakened the IGs' power. The Pentagon and the State Department were exempted from the law, the White House was given too-firm control over selection of the IGs and, perhaps most important, the IGs were required to report to their agency heads instead of directly to Congress.

When the Clinkscales matter surfaced, some members of Congress became convinced that the IG program had been effectively gutted. Sen. Harry Byrd [I-Va.] has asked for a GAO investigation; the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee will hold hearings to see if changes in the law are needed.

Meanwhile, officials and legislators are hoping Raegan will stick to his promise of naming tough and politically independent corruption fighters to the IG posts. As one Senate staffer put it: "You need more than junkyard dogs. You need barely controlled savages."