In December 1983, Louis O. Giuffrida, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, stood before an American flag wearing the uniform of a two-star Army general. A photographer took pictures, and Giuffrida gave copies to a half-dozen of his top aides.

But Giuffrida, whom nearly everyone addresses as "general," retired from the Army in 1971 as a colonel. He was given honorary promotions to major general in the California state military reserve in a manner that reserve officials say was highly unusual.

On Feb. 13, 1981, Giuffrida joined the California reserve as a colonel, according to state officials. The next day he was promoted to a one-star general. The following day, Giuffrida resigned from the reserve.

A similar sequence occurred 18 months ago. On Dec. 15, 1983, Giuffrida rejoined the state reserve. The following day, he was promoted to major general in a ceremony in Washington and later donned the two-star uniform here for the photos that now hang in some of his aides' offices.

The next day, Giuffrida retired from the state reserve.

Col. Donald Foley, a spokesman for the California reserve, said that the timing of the promotions may be unprecedented and that the other five generals in the reserve are all active in overseeing periodic drills and other activities.

Foley said it appeared to be a violation of federal and state regulations for Giuffrida to wear a general's uniform for anything other than a training session or official function in California.

"You're not supposed to wear that uniform outside the state," Foley said. "When you get to the point that you're wearing two stars and indicating you are a retired general, then the man is implying he's something that he's not . . . . It's misleading."

Foley said the state reserve, not to be confused with the National Guard, is "strictly a state military unit" and has "no federal recognition." He said the Pentagon could turn to the reserve as a backup force in a national emergency.

FEMA spokesman Robert Mahaffey said the promotions were "a great honor" for Giuffrida and emphasized that they do not increase the size of his military pension or have any monetary value. He said the second promotion was signed by California Gov. George Deukmejian (R) to honor Giuffrida's past service in the state.

"In recognition of Gen. Giuffrida's illustrious military career, Gov. Deukmejian promoted him to a major general in the California military reserve," Mahaffey said. "The governor sent a major general to Washington to present the commission. It was a very proud moment for Director Giuffrida.

"The director donned the uniform and had his photograph taken. That is the only time he has worn the uniform. He's never worn the uniform to the office . . . . It's his understanding that the wearing of the uniform for a ceremony in connection with the commission is not in violation of the military code."

Mahaffey said that Giuffrida, a 23-year Army veteran, did not ask for the promotions. He was unable to say how the promotions came about or who suggested that Giuffrida enlist briefly to receive the higher rank.

"It's not a position that has any substantive authority connected with it," Mahaffey said. "It's just within the state of California that these positions are recorded."

Giuffrida is a longtime associate of Attorney General Edwin Meese III, whose 1983 promotion from lieutenant colonel to colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve created a controversy. The Army later concluded that there were irregularities in the way that the Army Reserve chief, an old friend of Meese, approved the promotion, but said that no improper influence was involved.

In 1971, Meese arranged for then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan to name Giuffrida as the first head of the California Specialized Training Institute, a state disaster-planning agency. He also helped bring Giuffrida to FEMA a decade later.

It has been widely rumored that Meese may soon name Giuffrida to a senior post at the Justice Department, which has been investigating allegations of fraud and mismanagement at FEMA. Giuffrida's office last week denied a report that he is leaving FEMA, but said he had talked to the White House about the possibility of another administration job.