For nine months Congress has doggedly pursued the answer to the question: Who authorized US weapons sales to Iran and covert aid to the Nicaraguan contras? But the time is coming for lawmakers to step back and ask, as Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii puts it, ``How do we prevent this from happening again?''
The House and Senate committees investigating the Iran-contra affair have heard a litany about shredded documents, furtive meetings, and disinformation ploys - much of it intended to keep Congress in the dark on the Reagan administration's policy toward Iran and Nicaragua.
Now, lawmakers will have to decide what to do to close the loopholes that let administration officials pursue such a complex covert operation without congressional oversight.
An array of legislative remedies will be debated in the weeks following Congress's return from its August recess. One proposal gathering support would require the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of the start of a covert activity; at present he is required only to provide Congress with ``timely notification.''
Other plans would reduce the number of lawmakers who have access to classified intelligence information.
Other proposals would alter executive-branch procedures in an effort to thwart covert initiatives undertaken without presidential authority and congressional review. Some lawmakers argue that the national-security adviser ought to be subject to Senate confirmation. Others support legislation that would forbid the president's National Security Council from directing intelligence operations.
The NSC, lawmakers argue, should be limited to advising the president on diplomatic and intelligence matters. Only organizations like the Central Intelligence Agency, which is subject to congressional oversight, should be permitted to direct actual initiatives, they say.
Similarly, a few members contemplate legislation that would make it unlawful to begin a covert operation without presidential authorization. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, a member of the Senate Iran-contra committee, may introduce a bill that would require congressional notification when private money is used to fund an intelligence operation. Such legislation, Senator Hatch says, would have prevented abuses that occurred when the White House tried to help the contras after Congress moved to block such aid.
The debate over such proposals promises to be lengthy. Relations between the executive and legislative branches on intelligence matters have always been sensitive, a tenuous compromise between Congress's need-to-know and the White House's need to maintain security. But the Iran-contra affair represents a collapse of that compromise, and efforts to legislate new arrangements are bound ``to bruise a few toes,'' says Rep. Ed Jenkins (D) of Georgia, a member of the House Iran-contra committee.
For example, attempts to reduce the number of lawmakers with access to classified intelligence information are certain to hit stiff opposition. Many members are deeply offended by assertions that Congress cannot be trusted to keep secrets. They say information ``leaks'' are far more prevalent in the executive branch.
But former White House aides John Poindexter and Oliver North say they were motivated in part by doubts about congressional trustworthiness. Consequently, some lawmakers argue that they must take some steps to bolster an administration's confidence in Congress's ability to keep secrets.
In that vein, some Iran-contra committee members such as Rep. William Broomfield (R) of Michigan believe that Congress's twin intelligence committees ought to be combined into a joint committee, which would oversee all US intelligence activities.
Rep. Dick Cheney (R) of Wyoming, meanwhile, argues that lawmakers, who presently serve six-year terms on the intelligence committees, should be given permanent intelligence committee assignments, thus reducing the number of individuals with access to classified information.
Those ideas run into strong resistance from other members of the Iran-contra committees. ``We're looking at answers that are simple, straightforward, and wrong,'' says Sen. William Cohen (R) of Maine, the vice-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He insists that the present system is adequate and notes that the committee has strengthened its security measures. A joint intelligence committee, he says, would not provide effective oversight of intelligence activity. And permanent assignments might lead intelligence-committee members gradually to become too cozy with the intelligence agencies.
The Iran-contra committees will issue a set of reform recommendations in their final report, but they are unlikely to call for statutory reforms. ``There's a feeling that you can write all the laws you want,'' says Rep. Dante Fascell (D) of Florida. ``But they don't mean a whole lot if people aren't willing to follow them.''