After three months of testimony the Iran-contra hearings turned up ``nothing substantive that was new,'' according to John Tower, chairman of President Reagan's Iran-contra review board. The congressional investigation dragged on and suffered from posturing for TV cameras by the lawmakers, Mr. Tower charged at a breakfast with reporters yesterday. ``It would have been conducted with more dispatch if it had been held behind closed doors,'' he said.
Tower, a former Republican senator from Texas, admitted that the hearings succeeded in keeping before the public eye the flaws in administration policy-making that led to the affair. But he said the President had already acted to correct these flaws by moving to implement the recommendations of the three-member commission that Tower chaired.
The White House in recent months has formulated more precise procedures for reviewing covert actions, for instance - something the Tower board suggested.
In its final report, the Tower commission concluded that the Iran-contra affair ran as far as it did because of Reagan's detached management style. The report blamed Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger for not doing more to halt the arms sales to Iran.
The congressional hearings painted a somewhat different picture on these points. Although no evidence was presented that President Reagan knew of the diversion of arms-sales profits to the contras, he was shown to be a constant and active force in contra policy. In their hearing testimony Secretaries Shultz and Weinberger came across as concerned officials who opposed the Iran initiative all along.
Still, Tower said, ``I don't think I'd revise anything in our report'' in light of hearing revelations. He defended the review board's criticism of Shultz, Weinberger, and former White House chief of staff Donald Regan. Tower said that all three men were in ``operational positions'' concerned with policy formation and that they should have followed up their opposition in meetings by pressing for more information about what was going on.
Not all questions about the affair have yet been answered, Tower noted. ``I still don't think we've found out what happened to all the diverted funds,'' he said.
One angle Congress has chosen not to pursue is Israel's role in urging the United States to begin arms sales to Iran. ``If you think Congress is going to pick up that hot potato, you're going to be waiting a long time,'' Tower said.
Having been burned by Iran-contra, it is unlikely that the current administration would return to conducting foreign policy in secret, Tower said. The real question, he added, is whether a future administration will ever resume secret activities outside normal procedures.
Because in the end, said Tower, it was people, not some easily fixed bureaucratic process, that lay at the heart of the Iran-contra affair.
``The President's subordinates simply didn't perform as they should have,'' he said.