Oliver North's testimony before congressional committees, while it may have served him well, has left many aspects of the Iran-contra affair clouded. The exact allocation of responsibility and accountability for the affair may be left for future witnesses, notably former national-security adviser John Poindexter.
But some members of the House and Senate committees investigating the affair argue that if President Reagan was unaware of the full extent of the matter, he exercised only minimal restraint over his White House staff.
What sprang up in the White House, said Rep. Louis Stokes (D) of Ohio, was nothing less than ``a layer outside our government, shrouded in secrecy, and only accountable to the conspirators.''
``It is a prescription for anarchy in a democratic society,'' Representative Stokes warned.
Colonel North repeatedly stressed that every action he had taken during his time on the National Security Council staff had been with the approval of his superiors and - he thought - of President Reagan.
North's testimony was ``very favorable to him personally,'' says Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida. It helped him to ``gain back his credibility.''
But other members of the Iran-contra committees stressed that North seemed more interested in putting his own view across to the television audience than in helping Congress gain a clearer picture of the ways in which arms were secretly dispatched to Iran and proceeds of the sales were siphoned off to aid the contras.
``Every time they ask him a question, he's made a speech,'' says Rep. Jack Brooks (D) of Texas.
He noted that North, while dwelling on the patriotic ends that would be served by helping the contra rebels fighting to overthrow the leftist government of Nicaragua, was far less illuminating about arms sales to Iran.
North seems to have been successful in persuading the committees that he did not personally profit from the arms sales to Iran, and that he may well have had approval for his secret support of the contras. The committee members, however, were willing to support his blanket assertion that he had done nothing wrong in hiding his actions from Congress.
Even Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, perhaps the Reagan administration's strongest supporter on the panels, mixed his laudatory remarks to North with reminders that misleading Congress about his actions could not be justified.
And Senator Hatch stressed that the National Security Council staff should never have been given responsibility for conducting ``operations,'' in addition to its traditional role of advising the President.
Rep. Dante Fascell (D) of Florida observed that uniformed military men, like Colonel North, should never again be placed in a position of executing clandestine administration policy while serving on the White House staff.
But as North's five days of testimony drew to a close, the Marine lieutenant colonel repeatedly underscored his assertion that virtually all of his actions had been sanctioned by higher-ups.
``Every single activity that I conducted I conducted with the approval of my superiors,'' he stressed.
North also used his appearance before the committees to make a number of pleas for support for the contras. Perhaps the capstone of that effort came when, in response to a request from Rep. Richard Cheney (R) of Wyoming, North recited the text of an audio-visual presentation (without showing the accompanying slides) on the danger of allowing a Marxist government to become established in Nicaragua.
North described how the Soviet Union had systematically built up Nicaragua's armed forces with weaponry, including helicopters, that posed a threat to other nations in the region.
North argued that Nicaragua was following the pattern of Cuba in becoming a Marxist-Leninist state that stifled dissent, violated human rights, and systematically fomented unrest in the region.
But, North said, ``Somehow we were not able to get these things before the American people in a way that they can understand what's happening in Central America.''
Because of an editing error, a back page article yesterday on the Iran-contra hearings said: ``The committee members were willing to support [Oliver North's] blanket assertion that he had done nothing wrong in hiding his actions from Congress.'' The sentence should instead have read: ``Few committee members....''