It started with occasional sniping over turf.

Now, after months of smoldering hostilities, two congressional committees with overlapping powers to oversee the Defense Department have declared war. There have been allegations of subterfuge, interference and outright poaching.

The battle has become so fierce that last week Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger asked the speaker of the House to step in as referee in the committees' duel over which has the right to a controversial internal Pentagon report on security lapses in some of the military's most secret programs.

Entrenched in one camp is Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and his subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations -- a panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that has built a reputation for aggressive assaults on Pentagon and defense-contractor scandals.

On the other side is Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) and his House Armed Services Committee, a group once considered a protective ally of the Pentagon that now increasingly aims its guns at defense mismanagement.

For the past several months, members of Dingell's subcommittee have privately groused that the Aspin committee has been taking over its best investigations after the Dingell group has already done much of the legwork.

"That's baloney," responded Armed Services Committee member Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.), who said the committee has done its own work on its own investigations.

And even if the two panels are pursuing the same investigation, "Any matter to do with defense . . . I honestly believe that jurisdiction belongs with the Armed Services Committee."

Mavroules added, "If it's a turf battle, we have to dig in."

It seems, however, that each group has already hit the bunkers.

Take, for instance, the issue of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, one of the Army's most costly projects, which has been criticized as unsafe for the soldiers who ride in it. The Dingell committee set a hearing on the issue for 10 a.m. April 24, then discovered the Armed Services Committee had scheduled a hearing for 2 p.m. the previous day.

Or consider the tug-of-war over the B1, the nation's strategic long-range bomber. The first public revelations of major problems with the nation's $28.3 billion bomber program came before a Dingell hearing last December on an unrelated Air Force issue. Early this year, the Armed Services Committee conducted hearings on the B1's ailments with its electronic defenses, flight controls and other systems.

The General Accounting Office, the congressional investigative service, however, said Aspin asked it to look into the bomber's problems in the summer of 1986, well before the Dingell hearing.

But there is another issue at stake. Some congressional sources say Dingell's group is irked that Aspin's panel has been getting so much publicity for its recent Pentagon investigations, a suggestion Dingell supporters deny. Dingell was out of town and could not be reached for comment, a staffer said.

Adding to the turf battles is a long-running debate over which panel is really tougher on the Pentagon.

Some Dingell committee members and staff have privately criticized the Armed Services Committee as being too protective of the Pentagon.

Mavroules replies that the committee has proven its aggressiveness in probing weapons like the B1, the MX missile, the Bradley and the M1 tank (the same issues the Dingell group claims credit for exposing). One Armed Services Committee source noted, however, "Dingell helps goose our members into doing something."

The feud escalated last week over a controversial Defense Investigative Service (DIS) report that found significant security problems involving the defense contractors for some of the Pentagon's most sensitive programs.

The Dingell subcommittee last spring conducted hearings into security problems with black programs. As a result, one committee member, Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), successfully pushed for an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill requiring DIS to conduct an investigation into the problem.

The DIS conducted its study, and a Pentagon panel reviewed the findings and on June 17 sent a four-page summary to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, as ordered by the legislation, as well as Dingell's subcommittee.

Members of each of the panels later were told by some Pentagon officials that the summary was a diluted version of DIS' original report, which sharply criticized Pentagon security programs. The congressional groups then asked the Pentagon for the full report.

On the eve of a planned session of the Dingell subcommittee staff to discuss subpoenaing the original DIS report, it was delivered to the House Armed Services Committee.

Aspin wrote Dingell a letter Sept. 30 inviting members of the Dingell subcommittee to read the report, but said he would have to keep the report in his office "because this is an important ongoing committee investigation." On the same day, Aspin issued a press release highlighting some of the findings of the report.

The next day, Dingell fired off a response to Aspin's offer to allow him to view the report at the Armed Services Committee offices: "I thank you for the offer, but our subcommittee cannot conduct an investigation in that fashion. Neither, I would suggest, could the Armed Services Committee rely on others to be custodians of essential papers."

In the same letter, Dingell noted that his subcommittee had voted to subpoena Weinberger because the Pentagon had refused to provide him with the original DIS report.

All of which prompted Weinberger to inform Dingell that "it would be improper for me to take any action in response" to the subpoena.

Why?

"In brief, the chairman of the Committee on Armed Services has determined that his committee has jurisdiction over this matter," wrote Weinberger in the Oct. 6 letter, adding, "The chairman has asked us to refer all inquiries regarding this subject to the committee."

Weinberger, pleading his case to the speaker of the House, noted, "The department cannot legitimately insert itself into the administration of the House of Representatives. To provide the documents you have requested would require us to do so."

The Dingell subcommittee is planning to schedule its own hearing on the issue anyway, even though an Armed Services subcommittee held a hearing last Tuesday.

Stay tuned.