Iran-contra affair back in the spotlight. Report of congressional panels denounces efforts to sidestep Constitution

The Iran-contra affair comes rushing to the foreground once again. Congress releases its report tomorrow on the secret arms sales to Iran by the Reagan administration and the subsequent diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. The 350-page report details how a secret ``enterprise'' - a loose confederation of government officials and private citizens - ran its own covert foreign policy. And it charges the administration, and President Reagan personally, with fostering a climate of reckless disregard for the constitutional processes of government.

The criticism in a separate, 150-page minority report by some Republicans on the special House and Senate committees that investigated the affair is more muted, but nevertheless severe in its judgment.

Ironically, the administration is even now grappling with some of the same frustrating problems that gave rise to the Iran-contra affair. It still faces an intractable government in Iran, with American hostages still being held in the Middle East. The Marxist government in Nicaragua seems well entrenched, and the rebels fighting it are still facing a cutoff of aid from the Congress.

But in the year since the affair became public, there have been some dramatic shifts in the political landscape.

The President has been weakened, largely because of the Iran-contra affair, but also because of other domestic political issues, and is now a diminished figure in Washington.

Congress, which was largely circumvented in the Iran-contra affair, is now an important - and, some would say, intrusive - presence in the American foreign policy debate.

The State Department, once circumvented by the White House because of its bureaucratic preference for diplomacy over direct action, is now custodian of the administration's hopes to leave office with solid foreign policy accomplishments.

And ironically, the National Security Council staff is again headed by a military man - just as it was when the Iran-contra affair was uncovered.

All of this underscores the chief finding of a number of probes into the Iran-contra affair: The scandal was a failure of people, not of the system. Moreover, the failure came when people tried to misuse, pervert, or ignore the system.

Which people?

That, ultimately, will be decided in the courts. Within the past month, special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh obtained Swiss bank records that will help trace the serpentine path of millions of dollars from Iran to Central America - with substantial cuts going to arms dealers and sundry middlemen in the process.

Lt. Col. Oliver North, the former National Security Council staff member whospearheaded the Iran-contra affair, is one of the targets of Mr. Walsh's probe. Colonel North is still battling to avoid indictment.

Congress has now rendered its verdict on the Iran-contra affair. Its report charges that Mr. Reagan failed to create a climate of respect for the law and the constitutional process, and sought to exempt foreign policy from the normal checks and balances imposed by Congress and the courts.

``They didn't have to go to these lengths'' of conducting foreign policy in secret, one conservative activist says of the Reagan White House.

He contends that American support for contra aid could have been generated - or the congressional restrictions on it challenged in court. Instead, he says, some in the White House chose covert means to support the contras' cause.

What is still puzzling, this man says, is whether the administration lost faith in its own power to persuade, whether it was getting bad advice, or whether it was simply inept.

``I'm beginning to think I misjudged Ronald Reagan all along,'' says the man, one of the President's most ardent supporters in the past. ``I think he was just a politician, just mouthing the lines.''

Another mid-level government official, actively involved in foreign policy issues, has another explanation.

``There just wasn't anyone in the White House who understood or cared about foreign policy matters,'' he says - including the President.

The President, according to one ex-government official, likes to deal with rather basic policy ``concepts'' - strengthening the military, defending against nuclear missiles, or containing communism in the Western Hemisphere - and leaves the details to others.

In the Iran-contra affair, that management style seems to have had particularly bad consequences. Those who actually carried out the policy, says one nongovernmental policy analyst, simply did what they saw fit - not what Congress or the law told them was permissible.

That, he says, was their own fault - but also the fault of a President who neglected to oversee the execution of his own policies. As a result, the analyst says, ``US policy in Central America is no longer in the hands of the administration.''

``It's in the hands of [Costa Rican President Oscar] Arias or [Nicaraguan Roman Catholic prelate Miguel] Obando y Bravo,'' he says, referring to two of the principal figures involved in putting in effect a Central America peace plan.

``The Reagan administration,'' he says, ``is now irrelevant'' in the region, he says, with even the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Democrat Jim Wright of Texas, playing a more visible and powerful role than the President.

That judgment - ``irrelevant'' - may be the harshest one of all.

It is not shared universally, however.

One official notes that the President has the opportunity not only to complete a treaty with the Soviet Union eliminating intermediate-range nuclear forces, but also to make substantial progress toward limiting long-range, strategic nuclear forces as well.

If that is accomplished, he says, history's verdict on the Reagan presidency may be more positive than the view held by some today in the wake of the Iran-contra affair, the troubles encountered by the administration in filling the Supreme Court vacancy, and other setbacks.

It is ironic, the official says, that a President who came into office with so little predisposition toward arms control now finds that his place in history may now rest so heavily upon it.

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