New phase for `the hearings'. Public interest sags after `smoking gun' fails to appear, but Iran-contra panel still seeks keys to system failure

Testimony by John Poindexter has failed to link President Reagan to the diversion of arms-for-Iran profits to the contras. This has left many people feeling the way a Senate elevator operator does about the Iran-contra hearings. ``What?'' the operator asked. ``You're going to the hearings? I didn't know anyone still went to them.''

Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia is one who does. ``If you thought these hearings were just about a search for smoking guns,'' he says, ``then they're probably over. But these hearings were always supposed to be more than that. You don't have to choose between the rule of law and covert activities, and we're going to try to see why some people felt that choice had to be made.''

At the moment, the hearings have gone as far as they are likely to go in clarifying the central questions of what the President knew and who was responsible for the whole affair. Earlier, witnesses had drawn a generally complete outline of where all the arms sales profits went, another mystery the committee had set out to resolve.

Now the inquiry's attention shifts away from a search for broken laws toward an inquiry into the policy ramifications of the Iran-contra affair. This may not make for dramatic television, but it strikes the core of the committee's mandate - to find out what went wrong so that steps may be taken to prevent it from happening in the future.

Congress might impose new constraints on presidential discretion in executing covert activities. Some lawmakers talk of subjecting the President's national-security adviser to Senate confirmation. Others argue for the establishment of a permanent, joint congressional committee, comprising a handful of top House and Senate leaders, that would be kept apprised of all administration intelligence activities.

Even if the committee's final report, due in September, does not contain such recommendations, panel members will be free to urge such changes on their own.

One major theme still to be investigated as the committee moves toward a mid-August wrap-up is the role of senior Cabinet officers in the affair. Five witnesses are still to be called: Attorney General Edwin Meese III, Secretary of State George Shultz, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, former White House chief of staff Donald Regan, and a former National Security Council aide named James Radzimiski, whose job was to control sensitive NSC documents.

Mr. Meese is likely to face the most-pointed questions. A number of committee members feel that the Justice Department's preliminary inquiry into Iran-contra events, begun as details of the affair began to become public last November, was something less than dogged. Admiral Poindexter testified that neither Meese nor Mr. Regan ever asked him who had approved the diversion of arms sales profits. Lt. Col. Oliver North said he shredded documents in one part of his office suite while Justice Department investigators were present, though a departmente spokesman says this never happened.

The exact role of Secretaries Shultz and Weinberger will also be a focus of inquiry. Both have said they knew nothing about the contra diversion. But Colonel North, in his testimony, said that Mr. Shultz once told him what a good job he was doing with the contras.

``The hearings,'' as they are simply referred to on Capitol Hill, are eight weeks old and have at least three more weeks to run. But one might think they were all but history, from the remarks of not only the elevator operator, but those of some ranking members of the joint congressional committee charged with investigating the Iran-contra affair. ``I think we have found out just about everything we're going to find out,'' says Rep. Dick Cheney (R) of Wyoming. Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma adds, ``I'll be glad when it is over. It'll free up an extra 10 hours in my day.''

The sense that everything is over but the report-writing stems from the fact that former national-security adviser Poindexter says he purposely did not tell President Reagan that profits from the arms sales were being sent to the contras. If there were evidence that he had, this would have been the ``smoking gun.''

But, ``the buck stops with me,'' Poindexter said.

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