Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger told the congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair that because of his strong opposition to secret arms sales to Iran, he was shut out of the discussions once President Reagan decided to go ahead with the transactions. Secretary Weinberger's testimony on Friday further etched a picture of an administration ripped by internal division as the United States secretly shipped arms to Iran to gain the release of American hostages held in Lebanon.
At one point, former national security-adviser John Poindexter excluded Weinberger and Secretary of State George Shultz - both of whom opposed the arms sales - from a meeting with the President at which the arms sales would be discussed.
Some committee members were stunned by that disclosure.
``It seems to me what happened in all of this was, in effect, ... a junta within the government of the United States,'' said Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D) of Maryland.
That echoed the words of Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, who said, ``It was something like a palace coup.'' Senator Nunn spoke after former White House chief of staff Donald Regan testified on Friday that he, too, had been kept in the dark about many aspects of the affair.
``There were a few people in the NSC [National Security Council] who had taken over this aspect of foreign policy,'' Nunn said, and chose to shut out any opposing voices.
The secretary of defense testified that the effort to deceive him even included an order issued to an unnamed agency in the Defense Department to withhold sensitive information from him and Secretary Shultz. Asked who gave the order, Weinberger said he assumed it originated in the National Security Council.
``I made it very clear to the defense agency involved that they took their instructions from us and they certainly under no circumstances ever were to accept an instruction that we were not to be on the distribution list for any of this important intelligence material,'' Weinberger said.
Former chief of staff Regan also disclosed that last December there was discussion in the White House about pardons for Poindexter and his former aide, Lt. Col. Oliver North.
However, Regan said that President Reagan ``shot [the idea] down right away.''
The reason, as Regan related it, was that the President felt a pardon implied evidence of criminal conduct. ``I'll be darned if I'm going to accuse them of a crime in advance,'' Regan quoted the President as saying.
That, said Regan, meant that the President ``put his foot down hard'' on the idea of pardons, and the subject ``never came up again.''
President Reagan, during a photo session Friday at the White House, also said that he had heard no evidence of criminal conduct during the Iran-contra hearings. He declined to answer questions about pardons, however, indicating he would have something to say about the Iran-contra affair after the congressional hearings are over next week.
Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the next presidential press conference has not been scheduled. Some White House sources indicated, however, that the President plans a nationwide television address on the topic early in August.
The final stages of the hearings have produced abundant evidence that the President was fully aware of the extent of the secret arms sales to Iran and that he approved them in hopes of extracting the hostages from their Middle Eastern captors.
Secretary Weinberger's testimony made it clear that he and Secretary Shultz had firmly opposed the clandestine arms sales, but the President had just as firmly supported them.
Weinberger recounted blunt discussions in which he argued that the arms sales were contrary to US policy and that other nations would find them ``inexplicably inconsistent'' if they were ever exposed.
At one point in January 1986, Weinberger thought his resistance had been successful. Returning to the Pentagon after a meeting at the White House, the secretary told a military aide he ``believed this baby had been strangled in its cradle, and that it was finished.''
Later, Weinberger said, he was startled to find that the sales were proceeding. Weinberger said Poindexter told him: ``The President's decided this and there's no more room for argument....''
Still, Weinberger said his opposition was unambiguous.
In the margin of one draft of a presidential ``finding'' justifying the arms sales, Weinberger wrote, ``This is almost too absurd to comment on.''
Weinberger testified: ``The continued objection was made all through  with my repeatedly calling attention to the fact that it wasn't working, we were getting the usual violent anti-American statements out of Iran, nothing was happening, we weren't getting any hostages, nothing was working, and it should be stopped.''
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's top military officer, was not told about the proposed sale in early 1986, Weinberger said, because the orders were to carry out the arms transfer with the ``bare minimum of people.''
Weinberger, after close questioning, said he had regrets that his advice had not been taken, but felt he had done as much as possible to oppose the policy.
Weinberger is expected to complete his testimony today. The congressional panels are expected to interrogate several Central Intelligence Agency officials privately this week and then spend August writing an official report on the affair.