Senior Bush administration officials have rebuked Customs Commissioner Carol B. Hallett for shifting $28 million out of her agency's drug interdiction activities and moving the funds into commercial and other agency operations, according to administration officials.

After learning about the action, national drug policy director William J. Bennett and Office of Management and Budget Associate Director Janet Hale last month accused the Customs Service of flouting the president's anti-drug plan and circumventing federal law by unilaterally reallocating the funds without seeking necessary approvals from their agencies. By the time Customs notified them, they said, it was too late to reverse the

action because the money had been spent.

The dispute set off a series of angry interagency memos and threats, resulting in a tense meeting late last month between Deputy Treasury Secretary John E. Robson, who oversees the Customs Service, and Hallett. At the meeting, Robson sided with OMB and Bennett and chastised Hallett for her handling of the matter, sources said. "It was extremely unpleasant -- big time," said one administration official.

As a result of the reallocation, Customs has not hired about 470 inspectors and other employees to inspect commercial cargo, operate dog-sniffing teams and conduct aerial surveillance for drug smugglers that had been requested in the president's anti-drug budget and approved by Congress, officials said.

Hallett, a former U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas, was on a trip to Asia yesterday and unavailable for comment. But Deputy Customs Commissioner Michael Lane defended the agency's decision to reallocate the drug money, saying that with the vastly increased help Customs has been receiving from the Defense Department and the National Guard, the agency no longer needed to spend as much on drug interdiction.

"The burning need . . . wasn't as great," Lane said. "When our fiscal year 1990 budget was put in, nobody could have anticipated that we were going to receive this tremendous support from the National Guard -- we've had hundreds of {Guard} personnel helping in cargo inspections. . . . We feel the {drug} strategy is working."

Lane said, however, that Customs shifted the funds without getting the needed approvals from Bennett and the OMB. "I have to acknowledge they {Bennett and Hale} are correct," he said. "But the matter has now been resolved and everybody is satisfied. . . . This will not happen again."

The dispute has become a new embarrassment for the Customs Service and, according to some administration officials, indicates that some of the management problems that existed during the Reagan administration may still beset the agency. In a harsh criticism of the Customs Service under the tenure of the former commissioner, William von Raab, the House Ways and Means Committee last year issued a report accusing the agency of "flagrant" mismanagement and said accounting controls were "in total disarray."

As a result of the current dispute, the administration is taking new steps to correct the problems, officials said. In an Aug. 15 letter to Robson, Hale wrote that "OMB and Treasury staff have already begun working to develop more effective budget executive controls" over Customs.

The dispute also revolves around an effort by Hallett to address another of the chief criticisms of Customs during the von Raab era -- that Customs had become a "gung ho" agency that was devoting so much attention to the drug war that it was neglecting its less glamorous duties, such as collecting tariffs and processing the millions of passengers and commercial cargoes that enter the country each day.

Earlier this year, Customs budget officials noticed they were facing a tight financial squeeze as a result of pay raises, higher health benefits and other costs that had not been fully funded in the budget. "We are at least $40 million short in being able to do what the Congress expects," Lane wrote Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary David M. Nummy in a Feb. 16 memo.

Customs officials have argued that Lane's memo first mentioned that Customs may not have enough money to hire the extra cargo inspectors and other employees called for in its drug-interdiction plans. They also said that a copy of the memo was sent to Bennett's office and OMB.

When Bennett's office learned in July that Customs had actually moved money out of the drug budget, the drug director's aides were infuriated, sources said. Under 1988 anti-drug law, Bennett's office is required to formally approve any change of $5 million or more in any federal agency's anti-drug budget -- an authority that was tested for the first time in the Customs dispute.

But since then, Bennett has reluctantly agreed to the reprogramming of the money and, in an effort to ease the dispute, sent a letter reaffirming his confidence in Hallett. So has Robson. "We're one big happy family again," said Lane.