THEY RECENTLY assigned a panel of retired generals and admirals to find out what went wrong in the hostage rescue attempt in Iran. I can't think of a more objective board of investigators.

I have read as much as I could on the subject and, while I don't claim to be an expert, I have my own theory as to why the mission failed, and I hope the senior officers devote some time to it.

To me, it was all over the minute that tourist bus came down the road on its way to Tabas, just when the helicopters and C-130s were landing for refueling.

Let's replay the scenario that would have taken place if all the helicopters were operating. Remember that this was a 48-hour operation and depended on the element of complete surprise.

It is several hours after the bus has been stopped. The 44 Iranian tourists have all been herded onto a C-130 and flown off to some airfield in Egypt.

Mohammed Khafi, the owner of the Sheephound Bus Line, is waiting impatiently in Tabas for his bus to arrive. When it is five hours late, he goes to an official of the Revolutionary Council and says, "Something has happened, my bus is late."

Karim Jalaf says, "Your bus is always late. It probably broke down in the desert."

"That is what I'm afraid of," Mohammed says. "I have tourists aboard, and if they have broken down in the desert they could all die, and I will have to pay for their hotel rooms in Tabas."

"So what do you want us to do?"

"Please go with me in a jeep down the road, and see if we can find it."

"You must be crazy. We don't have time to bounce all over the place looking for one of your buses."

"But we need the bus to take our students to next Friday's anti-American demonstration in Tehran."

"I forgot about that. All right, Mohammed, I will find your bus."

Karim then orders three of his men and Mohammed into their jeep. They start driving down the road from Tabas to Tehran. Every time they are about to turn back, Mohammed urges them to go a little further. Finally, they arrive at Post-e Badam, the site of the airfield the Americans used for refueling. The bus is there, but there are no passengers.

Mohammed bursts into tears. "They have all left. They will never use Sheephound again."

One of Karim's men shouts, Look, there are tracks leading to the airfield." The five men follow the tracks. "It appears that they are picked up in a large airplane."

Karim looks sternly at Mohammed. "Are you sure your bus was not used to help the enemies of the revolution escape?"

Mohammed cries, "May Allah be my witness, they were tourists."

The men walk around the airfield. They find all sorts of equipment, as well as fresh fuel on the ground.

Karim says, "Something is rotten in Denmark. We better let Tehran know about the bus and all the airplane activity. I can't believe anyone would go to so much trouble to kidnap 44 Iranian tourists."

From that moment on, everyone in the Iranian capital has been alerted, and while the commandos are putting their act together in the mountain hideout they were flown to, the element of surprise has been lost.

So, if the admirals and generals are going to be thorough in their investigation, the place to start is with the intelligence person who assured evryong there was no chance of any traffic being on the road where the rescue team would refuel. Anyone who reads thrillers knows that when you have 48 hours to pull off a sneak attack, the last thing you want to deal with is a busload of tourists, particularly if someone is waiting for it in Tabas.