It was with great concern that we read the article {May 4} by Mary Thornton about what was termed "an extended and increasingly vicious turf war for supremacy in the federal assault on drug trafficking" between the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs Service.

As the chairman and ranking minority member of the House subcommittee on Coast Guard and navigation, we take issue with any implication either that the U.S. Coast Guard is the "perpetrator" of a "heist" of $8 million in federal funds or that the Coast Guard has violated federal law or the intent of Congress. The Coast Guard has been given a black eye that it doesn't deserve in this matter.

In a meeting of high-level representatives of the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard and the Customs Service the day after the article appeared, the Coast Guard presented documentation supporting its actions -- including a copy of the Memorandum of Agreement, dated Feb. 11, 1987, which was signed by both the commandant of the Coast Guard and the commissioner of Customs, agreeing to the $8 million transfer.

At a congressional hearing May 7, the DOT representative stated that the people attending the meeting had agreed that the Coast Guard had acted properly and there had been no improper transfer of Customs funds. In addition, our subcommittee staff requested an informal opinion about the matter from the General Accounting Office. GAO saw no legal problem with the transfer of funds and said that the Treasury system authorizes electronic transfers.

The $8 million referred to was part of a total of $10 million appropriated by Congress for the U.S.-Bahamas Drug Interdiction Task Force created in last year's omnibus drug bill. While the money was authorized for the task force -- a multi-agency government program -- last year's continuing resolution placed the money in Customs' account for use by the task force. The funds could just as easily have been put in the account of any other member of the task force -- including the Coast Guard, the Department of State or the Department of Justice. There was nothing in the legislation requiring that the funds be spent for Customs assets.

While the article correctly states that Customs Commissioner William von Raab offered the $8 million to the Coast Guard for air interdiction purposes, the article neglected to point out that the offer came with three stipulations:

1) that the Coast Guard support Customs' use of the remaining $2 million for Customs' aerostat resources in the Bahamas, even though Congress did not authorize the money for that purpose;

2) that the Coast Guard accede to Customs' patrolling in waters between the U.S. coast and Bimini, well beyond normal Customs jurisdiction; and

3) that the Coast Guard acknowledge Customs' "gracious offer" before the National Drug Policy Board.

Clearly, the agreement that was signed by the heads of the two agencies was considered mutually beneficial. The greatest beneficiary of the agreement, however, may be the U.S. taxpayers. Instead of Customs proceeding as planned and buying three new helicopters at a cost of $6 million, the Coast Guard suggested that surplus Air Force helicopters be used, thereby making the $6 million available to equip the surplus helicopters with appropriate intercept equipment and covering the operating expenses associated with the Bahamas interdiction effort. It is refreshing to see agencies using existing assets rather than buying new ones.

We feel strongly that the Coast Guard should have a primary role in drug interdiction on, under and over the territorial waters of the United States and the high seas. We also believe the Customs Service has an extremely important role to play in this effort where drug smugglers enter the United States, whether by air, land or sea. The "turf battles" that have been brewing long before this recent episode disturb us.

But we must not allow congressional differences of opinion to provide any encouragement to those agencies to take matters into their own hands or to make unjust claims against each other in the press. Rather, we must continue to encourage the strong and cooperative war against drugs that we all seek to fight.

EARL HUTTO U.S. Representative (D-Fla.)

ROBERT W. DAVIS U.S. Representative (R-Mich.) Washington