Washington — The congressional Iran-contra hearings no longer monopolize the evening news. But out of the spotlight the House and Senate committees, working together, toil on. ``There is an impression that the public hearings having ended, we're through,'' said House Iran-contra committee chairman Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana. ``That's not an accurate impression; we have an enormous amount of work to do.''
This week committee members have convened in closed sessions to hear CIA officers testify about the sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of funds to the Nicaraguan rebels. Meanwhile, members are turning their attention to the draft of a final report that will summarize the committees' findings and recommend procedural changes aimed, said Representative Hamilton, at insuring ``that this sort of thing will not happen again.''
At a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday, Hamilton reflected on the accomplishments of the committees and the work that lies ahead. He conceded that a number of gaps remain in the account of the Iran-contra saga and said committee members have much work to do before final conclusions can be drawn.
``The investigators on the committees tell me there are a lot of leads that we have not pursued as fully as we should,'' he said. ``I'm aware that, [with] almost every single witness, there are questions we don't know the answer to that we need to know the answer to.''
Indeed, some very basic issues still elude congressional investigators. For example, Hamilton said, ``I don't understand yet what happened between December of '85 and January of '86. It's not clear to me completely what turned around the administration on the question of going forward with this program.'' He was referring to the decision to sell arms to Iran in exchange, in part, for release of American hostages held by Muslim militants in Lebanon.
A number of questions, he said, might be answered in the coming weeks. ``There are a lot of depositions to be taken. We just got the Israeli chronology the other day; I frankly have not had time to read it. I'm not at all satisified with our record on financial matters; we've got much work to do there.''
Hamilton added that the committee could hold additional public hearings if any critical and unexpected information is uncovered.
Consequently, Hamilton shied away from complete endorsement of a statement by Vice-President George Bush, printed in yesterday's editions of the Washington Post, that the Iran-contra hearings supported his assertion that he knew nothing of the diversion of funds to the contras. ``At this point,'' Hamilton said, ``we have very little evidence of the vice-president's involvement, and so far as I know that is the status of things. But it is also a tentative judgment on my part.''
Uncertainties may continue to swirl about the details of the Iran-contra initiative, but a few conclusions, Hamilton believes, are unmistakable.
``The central concern is the abuse of process,'' he said. ``We found very important decisions in this government being made in very peculiar ways which do not accord with the general way we do business in this country.''
The famous Watergate-era query, ``What did the President know, and when did he know it,'' is not the sine qua non of the congressional inquiry, he said. ``There were a lot of people who adopted the view that once the evidence showed that the President did not know of the diversion the hearings were over, and all the questions had been resolved. That's a mistaken view.''
The fact that the President Reagan, apparently, did not know of the diversion itself raises important questions about the wisdom of Reagan's stewardship of the presidency, Hamilton said. ``The other question is, if he did not know, should he have known? That's a terribly important question as well and I think you cannot excuse the President from responsibility.
``The buck stops with the President, and if there is confusion in the decisionmaking process of the administration on critical matters of foreign policy initiatives, then I think the President has to take responsibility for that confusion.''