The first day of congressional hearings on the Iran-contra affair shone light on one of the affairs remaining a dark mystery: where the money went. In a calm explanatory voice, key witness Maj. Gen. Richard Secord told of parachute supply drops to contra fighters in Nicaragua, funds paid to support Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Lebanon, and the purchase of a Danish freighter for United States government use - actions all made possible by the $30 million Iran paid for US arms shipments.
General Secord told of being brought into secret US dealings with Iran at the request of Lt. Col. Oliver North, an old friend. He strenuously defended their attempts to find an opening to factions in Iran while diverting funds to the contras.
``I also understood that this administration knew of my conduct and approved it,'' Secord said. He also criticized Attorney General Edwin Meese III for ``grossly inaccurate disclosures about our operations.''
Secord said the $30 million in arms payments from Iran was deposited in the Swiss bank accounts of a Panamanian-registered firm, Lake Resources International, beginning in November 1985.
Of the $30 million, $12 million was paid back to the US Treasury to cover the cost of the arms. Of the $18 million profit, only $3.5 million was spent in support of the contras, said Secord. This money was spent buying the airplanes necessary to drop supplies into Nicaragua.
Albert Hakim, an associate who controlled Lake Resources with Secord, still controls some $6 million of the $18 million, and $2 million is in the bank. Three million dollars was spent on overhead.
Secord's testimony was the first in hearings that are expected to stretch three months. The opening statements by committee members touched upon some of the themes likely to be explored throughout the proceedings.
One is why key operatives in the Reagan administration tried to avoid the checks and balances that are an integral part of the democratic process. A related theme concerns the extent to which congressional efforts to steer foreign policy contributed to the administration's frustration and, ultimately, its decision to push an agenda at odds with not only the legislative branch, but also with its own stated policy.
The way those issues are analyzed could well depend on a political point of view - and partisanship quickly surfaced in the joint hearings.
Clearly, however, the hearings are going to be punishing to the White House. Hours before they began, Senate committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii warned that President Reagan should ``look over the facts'' and ``check [his] statement'' that he had no knowledge that White House staff members solicited funds from private donors to aid the contra rebels in Nicaragua. That blunt warning seemed to presage testimony that the President was, in fact, informed of many aspects of the Iran-contra affair well before he has acknowledged he was.
Peter Rodino Jr., the silver-haired chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, presided in 1973 over a vote to impeach former President Richard Nixon. Mindful of that earlier role in history, Representative Rodino, during opening statements Tuesday, raised the question ``Is this another Watergate?''
While not definitively answering it, he said evidence before the special investigating committees revealed ``a picture or pattern of questionable conduct, of illegality and wrongdoing reaching all the way into the White House, raising serious questions concerning possible knowledge and involvement of the President.''
Democratic Rep. Jack Brooks of Texas said, ``The story of the Iran-contra affair as it has unfolded in the past six months is the story of a group of people who, in their zeal to accomplish their personal goals, turned their backs on our system of government. When they couldn't justify their policies publicly, they simply hid their activities from the American people, from the Congress, and even from key official of their own administration.
The ranking Republican on the House committee, Rep. Dick Cheney of Wyoming, said it was important to consider the context in which the affair unfolded, with Congress vacillating on providing aid to the contras from year to year.
The result, Mr. Cheney said, was ``a US government policy characterized by doubts and uncertainty.''
Perhaps the harshest attacks on the administration, however, came from a Republican, Rep. Jim Courter of New Jersey. ``Instead of taking the case for the Nicaraguan contras to the public,'' he charged, ``the Reagan administration went covert.
Yet the President did have his defenders. Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois was one, professing himself unwilling to join ``a bipartisan funeral march for the administration.''
Rep. Michael DeWine (R) of Ohio talked of an ``Alice in Wonderland'' atmosphere of the proceedings, in which some people are acting like the Queen of Hearts in the Lewis Carroll classic, calling for ``sentence first, verdict later.''
Still, noted another Republican, Sen. Paul Trible of Virginia, the hearings will begin the process of ``restoring faith.''
``This,'' he said, ``is American, not at its basest, but at its best.''