Washington — The ``buck'' in the Iran-contra affair has finally stopped, and it isn't in the Oval Office. At least that is the feeling at the White House. Although admitting that President Reagan is ultimately responsible for actions taken on his watch, White House officials are privately saying that the President is finally off the hook.
``As far as I'm concerned,'' says one high administration official, ``the hearings were over [Wednesday] at noon,'' referring to testimony by former national-security adviser John Poindexter that morning that he never told the President about the diversion to the contras of profits from the Iranian arms sales.
White House strategists are now taking a forward look, trying to shift public attention away from the Iran-contra issue and on to other matters they consider more important.
After the President's vacation at his ranch in Santa Barbara next month, the staff plans to increase his visibility on issues like the budget and foreign trade.
``Things will be very busy,'' says one staff aide. Another reports that they plan to ``work [Reagan] to the bone. ... We don't plan to end in a lame-duck mode.''
According to White House sources, the President will also focus on foreign affairs. Asked if Reagan will seek additional aid for the contras, one assistant responded without hesitation, ``Absolutely.''
Yesterday the White House announced that a number of changes have already been made in how it deals with covert activities. There are now four criteria applied to such an action:
It must be legal.
Congress must be briefed.
The action must support US foreign policy.
It has to be acceptable to the American people.
These criteria are currently in effect, which has resulted in the termination of some actions and a consolidation of others, White House sources say. They insist that Congress has been informed of all covert operations in progress.
The White House had been somewhat apprehensive over rumors two months ago that Admiral Poindexter was going to ``sing like a bird'' to the congressional committees and possibly implicate the President in the plan to divert arms-sale profits to the contras.
When asked how he thought Poindexter performed under congressional questioning, the official said that Poindexter ``presented an image of perfect credibility.''
Reagan handlers says they believe that Poindexter's testimony severed the last possible link between the President and the diversion plan.
A former White House official says Poindexter ``vindicated everything the President said. ... It gets us back to the real question. This is a policy dispute, not a criminal issue.'' He, like some other administration supporters, views the public hearings as simply an attempt by those opposed to aid for the Nicaraguan ``freedom fighters'' to kill the policy.
Administration critics disagree, pointing out that there are serious threats to open, democratic government when covert operations are run without appropriate oversight and presidential approval.
Critics also say there are significant discrepancies between statements Reagan made to the Tower Commission and to the American people, and facts revealed by the congressional investigation. For example, Poindexter indicated that Reagan understood from the outset that the dealings with Iran were part of a hostage swap, something the President has publicly denied.
In several off-the-record interviews, White House officials said they realize the ``background noise'' on misstatements of fact will continue to haunt them, but they do not consider it a critical problem.
``I think [public opinion] will repair,'' said the high administration official quoted earlier. ``The President paid 10 points [in public-opinion polls] for the arms sales to Iran and another 10 points for the diversion,'' he continued. ``The press can't keep going back to that negative well. ... The President has `done his time.'''
The White House repeated yesterday that President Reagan will refrain from commenting on the hearings until their conclusion in August.