'Rescue' probes limited while hostages are held

First, shock. Then, a wave of patriotic support. Now, a quest for answers. The reaction to the abortive mission last month to rescue the 53 American hostages in Iran is entering a new, more sober phase: official investigation.

At least three congressional committees, and one other legislative agency, are conducting inquiries.

The armed services committees of the Senate and House of Representatives this week questioned the one-the-scene commanders of the unsuccesful operation. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, meanwhile, queried Acting Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher.

The intelligence committees of the two houses decline to disclose whether they are looking into the episode, but are presumed to be doing so.

And a major Capitol Hill research arm, the Library of Congress's Congressional Research Service, already has ground out a pessimistic appraisal of the incident's impact on American relations with the rest of the world.

The idea of a congressional probe of the failed mission -- which was called off in the Iranian desert after three helicopters failed and resulted in an aircraft mishap killed eight American commandos -- is endorsed by such diverse political figures as conservative Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan and liberal Democratic hopeful Edward M. Kennedy.

But any full-dress, wide-ranging investigation -- in jam-packed Capitol Hill hearing room with television cameras whirring -- is not in prospect.

The various inquiries so far have been limited in scope and closeted behind locked doors. And they are likely to remain so.

Yet various inquiries so far have been limited in scope and closeted behind locked doors. And they are likely to remain so.

Yet the closed doors have not stopped fresh details on the raid from leaking out. Neither is the narrow focus expected to prevent lasting -- if unspectacular -- results.

The legacy of the current probes will likely:

* Clarify the record. The congressional inquiries may answer (at least for a significant number of lawmakers, if not the general public) unanswered questions , dispel confusion, scotch rumors, and expand the skimpy facts provided by the President's terse, 13-paragraph report to Congress.

"I think it is time for the administration to be forthcoming on the planning and on the decisions that went into this event, which was one of the most bizarre and tragic in all of our history," says Rep. Chalmers P. Wylie (R) of Ohio, echoing views shared by many colleagues of both parties.

* Repair any military or intelligence deficiencies. The most tangible result of the inquiries may be legislatively directed steps to correct any shortcomings revealed by the aborted mission -- the helicopter malfunctions, the adequacy of commando training, the potentially cumbersome command structure, any intelligence lapses.

These technical issues are the main thrust of the armed services committee hearing:

* To set guidelines for future consultations between the President and Congress. Amid disagreement over whether Mr. Carter was obliged by the War Powers Act of 1973 to have consulted lawmakers before ordering the rescue operation, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has begun exploring of drafting more specific ground rules for the future.

Any full-scale, open-door congressional investigation of the aborted Iranian mission -- and, indeed, the entire handling of the six-month-old hostages' captivity.

Congress's restraint is motivated partly by national security, partly by politics.

From a security standpoint, lawmakers fear that a no-holds-barred probe might peril the hostages, reveal possible future commando rescue strategies, or expose military vulnerabilities to the nation's enemies.

"I do not believe it serves the cause of our country or those Americans held hostage, for us to speculate and rehash and investigate, before the whole world, what has happened," says Senate Armed Services Committee member Robert B. Morgan (D) of North Carolina, voicing current Hill sentiments.

Politically, the Democratic-controlled Congress is reluctant to initiate a post-mortem that might post election-year embarrassment for the fellow Democratic President who ordered the mission and then aborted it.

Even many Republicans hesitate to press for an all-out probe while opinion polls show that the rescue expedition still enjoys wide support from the American public.

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