HONORED AND BETRAYED Irangate, Covert Affairs, And the Secret War in Laos By Richard Secord With Jay Wurts Wiley. 405 pp. $24.95

NOT SINCE Job, it seems, has such a righteous man suffered such inexplicable and unrelenting misery from above. Richard Secord -- the architect of three decades of covert actions, arms sales, and the "off-the-books" corporate enterprise that put the hyphen in Iran-contra -- might object, however, to this comparison. After all, Job was never persecuted, much less prosecuted, by an independent counsel. And Job had finally to acknowledge his relative insignificance to get back his riches. Secord is determined to regain his reputation and even reclaim his Iran-contra arms-sales profits by retelling the story of Reagan administration deceits with all the sanctimony of a career patriot betrayed by his last commander-in-chief.

Unfortunately, he has little that is new to add to the familiar tale.

The first half of Honored and Betrayed attempts to take the high ground by detailing Secord's extraordinary career in the military and government, one that included mounting special operations (Laos and Kurdistan), conceiving hostage rescue missions (the never launched October Surprise of 1980), and selling highly sophisticated air defense and communications gear to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Early on Secord establishes his record as a gutsy, hardball operator, consistently avoiding or fighting the authority of his superiors in order to get the job done. Though tedious in many sections, his book persuasively documents what one might call a chauffeur's perspective on foreign intrigues during two decades -- the 1960s and '70's -- that were marked with multiple military disasters and only an occasional victory. Secord's disdain for the exercise of congressional oversight and the separation of powers is clearly and frequently noted.

The sanctimonious tone of the first half of Honored and Betrayed strains, however, as Secord approaches the 1980s. Here he is forced to repeatedly disentangle his personal finances from his official and quasi-official efforts to help his friends, former CIA officers and convicted felons Edwin Wilson and Tom Clines. While dealing selectively with the charges for which federal prosecutors investigated him in the early 1980s, chiefly that he entered into a secret partnership with Wilson and Clines to supply and ship arms while a government official, Secord insists that he did not and was never to have benefited from any of their schemes. The book elsewhere details how a supposed conspiracy of Sandinista supporters, pro-contra arms sales competitors, corrupt contra leaders, leftist news media and overly ambitious federal investigators brought Secord and his business partner, Albert Hakim, to plead guilty and Clines to be convicted by a jury. Still insisting he only received a "modest" 20-30 percent profit on these patriotically motivated arms sales, Secord picks the convenient evidence from a record which goes against him. SECORD, like Oliver North before him, claims that everything he was accused of doing was known in detail by North's immediate superiors -- National Security Advisers Bud McFarlane and John Poindexter -- and in general by the constitutionally responsible officers: then President Reagan, Vice President Bush and CIA director William Casey. This washes, up to a point. But nowhere is the book persuasive that North's superiors knew that Secord was making a handsome, and well-cushioned, profit off the transactions, or that Secord had brought North into the partnership. In fact, Secord hardly touches on Hakim's confession that North was to share in the profits from the arms transactions and ignores the evidence discovered that North kept thousands of dollars in cash, in an iron box inside his bedroom closet, with which he paid personal expenses. Although Secord acknowledges he was due a share in the millions of profits, he dismisses allegations of his own venality by insisting that he never received more than a modest salary and that his cash purchase of a Porsche with funds drawn from the secret enterprise accounts was just a loan from Hakim.

Secord's version of all this is marred by myriad mistakes of fact (including the consistent misspelling of George Shultz's name) and frequent, unexplained (though possibly true) departures from the generally accepted and authoritative historical accounts. But most curiously, Secord takes far less credit than generally afforded him for the most significant arms sale achievement of recent history, the 1981 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane purchase by Saudi Arabia. Many of Secord's colleagues credit him as either "the" or "a" major architect of this deal, which ultimately proved a key reason why America prevailed so quickly and completely in the Persian Gulf.

One suspects that Secord understates his role in creating the Persian Gulf defense network because some editor suspected it was too dull to sell books. Nevertheless, while the second half of the book is filled with the details of Iran-contra adventure stories, these prove to be largely shopworn tales. Even Secord's much ballyhooed "new" evidence that then Vice President George Bush was "definitely not out of the loop on the Iran initiative" (a point that only George Bush and his campaign officials dispute) turns out to be confined to a commonly held, but yet undocumented interpretation of Bush's July 1986 briefing by Israeli counter-terrorism advisor Amiram Nir. Secord suggests that Bush carried Nir's proposal of another series of arms for hostage transactions back to the White House, resulting in renewed approval for the initiative by President Reagan. It is, however, intriguing to juxtapose the promotional hype of this assertion against the taped footage of Secord's January 24, 1990 appearance on the "Today Show" when he said, "As far as I know, President Bush did not know anything about the details of Iran-contra."

The real merit in Secord's account of Iran-contra lies in its demythologizing of the so-called diversion of big league profits from the Iran arms/hostage initiative into the contra secret arms supply network. With such an extraordinary commingling of personal, private and public funds and the desperate desire to keep all parts of the revenue-producing process humming, the dual use of available monies seems almost inevitable. What is less clear is how prosecutors and investigators were ever persuaded that the Secord/Hakim/North triad was not intending to pocket every spare nickel at the end. It would appear that they simply had not yet gotten around to withdrawing it when the music stopped. MUCH of Secord's ghost-written prose reads, not too suprisingly, like outtakes from a plea bargain proffer. In fact, the two appendices arguing the reasonableness of multi-million dollar profits on gun-running patriotism reprint 23 pages of his attorney's briefs submitted to congressional investigators. They are more eloquent on Secord's behalf than his own book.

In this light, it is difficult to take seriously Secord's protestations that he is blameless and upright when he protests that he was betrayed at virtually every turn by incalculable numbers of his seniors in the Air Force, Army, Marines and the Navy, two secretaries of defense and their staffs, several members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dozens of Special Operations and Central Intelligence Agency operatives, eight defense contractors, the leadership of both houses of Congress and several congressional committees, the independent counsel, several prosecutors from the Department of Justice, numerous U.S. ambassadors and State Department officials, several countries full of communists and Middle East terrorists, anti-communists from as many regimes, and Israeli leaders and lobbyists.

But Secord saves his greatest indignation for those who abandoned and betrayed him after his long and faithful service -- the President's National Security adviser Bud McFarlane, Attorney General Edwin Meese, Vice President Bush and, in the end, the President of the United States himself. It is here that his account, while not new to aficionados of Iran-contra, is most interesting.

The cover-up was far worse than any offense committed along the way, argues Secord. Had Reagan forthrightly taken responsibility for the joint tracks of the Iranian hostage initiative and the secret funding and arms supply of the contras, Secord insists, the American public would have forgiven him, the Congress would have equivocated and the prosecutors would have never impaneled a grand jury. Thus dismissing what Jim Baker and Ed Meese thought were impeachable offenses as simply "the myth of criminal wrongdoing," Secord proceeds to draw the worst possible constitutional lesson. Reagan's failure, he argues, was in failing to understand that America would not care if Congress was misled or not notified of covert actions, that no one would worry about violations of the arms export control act or the use of the forged End User Certificates needed for arms shipment. The American people might even admire a little profiteering in the name of free enterprise.

Richard Secord closes with a sad lecture on "the real constitutional issues" in his case. He concludes that these entail understanding that "off-line" activities such as his "off-the-books" enterprise should not be viewed as suspect but as just another example of freedom in action, itself an "off-line" activity. Freedom, according to Secord, "assumes that what's not explicitly prohibited is permitted."

Such words place in perspective the skepticism with which the Reagan national security supporting cast held western democratic values. They also illustrate Secord's own unwillingness to subjugate himself even to the Constitution which he says he was honored to serve. Richard Secord's honor was indeed, as he himself says, betrayed, but he need not look so far for who betrayed it. Scott Armstrong, founder of the National Security Archive, is an editor of "The Chronology: The Documented Day-by-Day Account of the Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Contras."