Three months almost to the day after they began, the extraordinary public hearings of the Iran-contra investigative committees ended yesterday. ``The story has now been told,'' intoned Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, panel co-chairman, as he gaveled the public proceedings to a close. The committees have several days of private testimony from CIA officials remaining. What a story it was. After 38 days of listening to tales of secret bank accounts, clandestine meetings, shredded documents, and lies to Congress, key members of the committees said one of their central conclusions was that circumventing democratic processes is a sure road to policy failure.
``Policies formed under democratic scrutiny are better and wiser than those formed without it,'' said Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, the other co-chairman.
In the Iran-contra affair, democracy was circumvented by a small number of people in the White House - a ``junta,'' Senator Inouye called them - who kept even the President in the dark about their activities.
``The most important revelation of these hearings is the extent to which power was abused by a small number of people,'' said Sen. Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire, a vice-chairman of the panels.
In the end, no member of the Iran-contra panels publicly defended the sale of arms to Iran as a good idea. As to the diversion of profits from the Iran arms sales to the contra fighters in Nicaragua, Senator Rudman pointed out that it was a failure even under its own terms, as only a small fraction of the money collected actually reached the contras.
Members of the committees repeated that they had absolutely no information that President Reagan knew of the fund diversion. But even the President's ardent supporters, such as Rep. Dick Cheney (R) of Wyoming, said grave mistakes had been made and the Iran-contra affair was far from the President's finest hour.
Sen. James McClure (R) of Idaho, however, complained that the hearings themselves ill served US purposes, through the airing of policy mistakes and processes in ``gruesome'' detail.
Representative Hamilton, in his summation, said what he had heard had been ``depressing,'' but he said the process of the hearings was part of the self-cleansing process of democracy.
``The process of restoring our institutions is already well advanced,'' he said, pointing to discussions between the White House and congressional leaders on how to rebuild mutual trust.
The key question now, Hamilton said, is how to make our system of government, in which tension between the White House and Congress over foreign policy is inevitable, work better.
Both branches of government should be more sensitive to their roles, he said. Presidential decisions must be ``clean and crisp'' if confusion in the ranks of the executive branch is not to follow, Hamilton said. For its part, Congress must work to better keep national secrets, he said.
Hamilton and other members of the committees said a side issue that worries them is how intelligence information is used. The panels turned up evidence that intelligence analysis of the Iran-Iraq war was skewed to support the policy of selling arms to Iran.
Committee members say they do not know for certain whether they will recommend any changes in law in their final report. Hamilton has indicated he is not sure such changes are necessary, and the final public witness, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, said he agreed with this position. ``At this point I don't see any need for any statutory changes,'' Secretary Weinberger said yesterday as he wrapped up his testimony.
Mr. Weinberger said the new national-security adviser, Frank Carlucci, had already instigated a number of changes, including a much closer review process before the President signs the ``finding'' that orders a covert operation.
Among the changes likely to be at least suggested in Congress are Senate confirmation of the national-security adviser, the merging of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees into one oversight panel, and tightening of the law requiring that Congress be notified of covert activities.