Iran testimony conflicts. Week of appearances by officials has answered some questions, but not lessened the controversy

More than a month after the Iran-contra affair was first disclosed, the Reagan White House still appears to be floundering in its efforts to defuse the issue. Senior White House officials - past and present - have testified on Capitol Hill. But they have contradicted one another, and as a result there is sharp disagreement over what President Reagan knew and what he authorized his subordinates to do.

The reappearance of former national-security advisor Robert McFarlane before the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday did little to clear up the confusion.

Key congressmen are disagreeing over where to pin the blame. Political advisers are urging the President to fire his chief of staff, Donald Regan, so as to get a ``fresh start'' during his last two years in office.

Taken together, the events suggest that the Reagan administration has been unable to shake the controversy.

The White House seems unwilling - or unable - to resolve the conflicts with Congress and within the administration. Health problems have temporarily disabled one central figure in the affair, Central Intelligence Agency Director William J. Casey, and the President himself will be undergoing minor surgery in January.

Meanwhile, Mr. Reagan seems detached from the controversy swirling around him. He is saying little in public, leaving his aides and his wife to put the administration's case to the public.

But the case itself is becoming increasingly complex and puzzling. Even a trusted US friend, Israel, disagrees publicly with the administration over the chain of events that led to American arms going to Iran and proceeds from the sale being skimmed off to pay foreign arms traders and, allegedly, to help finance guerrillas in Nicaragua.

Israel says it shipped the arms believing that the President had expressly approved the move as early as August 1985 - a claim borne out by former national- security adviser Robert McFarlane.

But two of the President's lieutenants, chief of staff Regan and Attorney General Edwin Meese III, told congressional committees that Mr. Reagan did not approve the shipments until early 1986.

The question is of more than academic interest. When the President gave approval is central to the question of whether US laws governing arms exports were violated. Consequently, the question of President Reagan's involvement is becoming central to the inquiry - leading to suggestions that the President himself may testify before Congress.

The Iran-contra affair has also taken some bizarre twists, with White House confirmation that a former NSC staff member, Lt. Colonel Oliver North, spoke of taking relatives of top Iranian officials prisoner and holding them in ``cages'' to swap them for American hostages in the Middle East.

As more of Colonel North's exploits become known, questions persist as to whether he acted on his own authority or with higher knowledge or approval. And the administration's claim that it did not sanction an arms-for-hostages swap seems increasingly threadbare.

Even Attorney General Meese now admits that he has no hard evidence that profits from the arms deal actually went to the contras. A separate inquiry is studying how the arms were transferred, even as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, in congressional testimony this week, sought to distance himself further from the entire affair by stressing his own disapproval of the arms sales.

Senate and House committees investigating the affair are facing criticism for publicizing details of supposedly secret testimony, given in closed sessions of the committee.

And even congressmen and senators themselves disagree on the significance of what they've heard.

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota says the evidence amassed so far indicates that North was acting on his own in siphoning off funds from the arms sales.

By contrast, the Democratic vice-chairman, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, says the same testimony supports the view that North must have been acting with the knowledge - even the approval - of someone higher up the chain of command.

The Senate committee debated a White House request for a grant of immunity to North and the former national-security adviser, Vice-Adm. John Poindexter, but decided against it. The White House expressed its disappointment.

Privately, Republican political strategists are worried that without grants of immunity, the entire affair could drag on well into next year.

The feeling in Congress is ``nearly unanimous'' that such immunity from prosecution would be ``premature,'' says Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine.

Nevertheless, he observes, ``I think it's obvious [that] the President is frustrated by the widespread perception that the administration is not cooperating fully.''

But, Senator Mitchell notes, ``if it is the President's fervent desire to get all the facts out, he can do so by granting pardons'' for those involved in illegal conduct after the facts have come out.

``Since the President is asking the Congress to do something that he has the legal authority to do,'' asks Mitchell, ``why should the Congress do it?''

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