Sitting alert but weary at the end of a long day, Arthur Liman, number one gumshoe and consigliere for the Senate Iran-contra investigation, sounds a little like a prizefighter between rounds. "July," he says, "is sort of like the main event. Everything up to now has been preliminary. Important, but preliminary."

On a nearby wall of his temporary home in the Hart Senate Office Building, there hangs a row of hastily framed photographs: the 11 members of the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition. Liman, the committee's chief counsel -- the man who, with his House counterpart, John W. Nields Jr., bears more responsibility for the hearings' success or failure than anyone -- is not pictured, of course. The job of chief counsel is to be heard but not necessarily seen.

Nonetheless, when the hearings resume today and Lt. Col. Oliver North takes the stand to be questioned first by Nields and tomorrow by Liman, there will be, as the editor of one legal journal put it, "a lot of people waiting to see Arthur strut his stuff."

As perhaps the top trial lawyer in New York -- and one of the best securities and white-collar crime lawyers in the country -- Liman, 54, is a faithful adherent to the first commandment of cross-examination. "I've never examined a witness who's important without really trying to understand ... what makes a witness tick," he says.

But for a man who cut his teeth on Wall Street swindles, the Iranscam gang -- North, Poindexter, McFarlane, Secord, Dutton, all the ex-military men and bureaucrats turned covert crusaders -- have been tough to figure.

"I talked to {North's} lawyer about what kind of a guy he is, I've talked to other people about him," Liman says. "I have to confess I talked to a psychiatrist that I used in Attica about what kind of insights could he give me on the motivation of these people.

"I'm not dealing with insider traders here. I'm dealing, with Col. North, with a person who didn't stay in government in order to make money. And that makes it in my mind, this phenomenon, much more dangerous and difficult to control. Because if you start with people who had good motivations -- they wanted to serve their country -- and things go as wrong as this, you have to say why and who's responsible?"

Answering that question 15 years after Watergate invites inevitable, and perhaps inevitably invidious, comparisons. Critics say that the Senate and House joint investigation, hampered by an early deadline, has rushed through its story and mismanaged its greatest asset -- the attention of the American public. Liman, these critics say, has cast his net too narrowly, questioning witnesses as if he were conducting a fraud investigation instead of what could have been the most significant examination of American foreign policy making ever undertaken.

Liman rejects the comparisons.

"I think that when things are always compared to Watergate it tends to diminish the impact of what happened here," he says. Then Liman, a man with a collection of antique games and puzzles that numbers in the hundreds, leans back in his chair and nods.

"I think people will be pleased when we finish because then all the pieces -- all the pieces will fit together."

He sits almost motionless as he speaks, arms folded across his chest and held a little high, as if he's fording high water and trying to keep his shirt cuffs dry. He comes across as earnest and open. He keeps his head cocked slightly downward, so that he winds up peering out from under his eyebrows to look at you. The result, less than a glower and more than a stare, is a cool, patriarchal gaze of judgment.

"So many of the people here graduated from Annapolis," he muses. "So I'm very, very curious, what is the ethic, the culture at Annapolis? I talked to people who graduated from the Academy, just to get a sense of the extent to which they feel they have an obligation to go down with the ship before they talk frankly with a congressional committee ...

"I've tried very hard to understand the effect of Vietnam on this, and the effect of Desert One {the aborted Iranian hostage rescue mission of 1980}. We've heard from so many witnesses who were involved in this -- their frustration and anger at what happened in Vietnam. I heard from many of the people the humiliation they felt at the failure of the Desert One mission ... Not the failure to rescue, because I felt if the operation had proceeded and there had been a bloodbath, and most of the hostages had been killed, from the point of view of a number of participants, that would not have been a humiliation or even a failure. What was a failure was that the military couldn't get four helicopters to their destination.

"You see it in General Secord, when he talks about the fact that he could do things better than government and therefore he could justify bypassing the whole institutional system of safeguards that we have. He may not even understand it, though it comes out in his testimony. I want to understand that and I try very hard to."

'Good Morning, Mr. Secord' The country met Arthur Liman in May, when he began the cross-examination of retired Air Force major general Richard V. Secord. Secord had been questioned carefully and deliberately the previous two days by House counsel Nields. On the third day, Liman took the microphone.

"Good morning, Mr. Secord," Liman said, and his face melted into the briefest smile. As it faded, his head lowered and his brown eyes went cold and Richard Secord's trial began.

"Am I correct, Mr. Secord, that from December 1984 until July 1985, you were engaged in selling arms to the contras for profit?" Liman intoned in his penetrating baritone.

An effective cross-examination is as choreographed as a bullfight, with a rhythm that, if maintained, works to control the witness and keep him off guard. Liman excels at this. "He has great eye contact and he speaks very softly and conversationally," says one lawyer who has worked with him. "He nods with you: 'And of course you were at that meeting, yes? And of course you burned all the documents, yes? And then you stepped on the American flag, yes?' The effect on the witness is almost hypnotic."

No sooner had Secord batted away one question than Liman pitched another. "Isn't it a fact, Mr. Secord," and "Did you ever see the bank records ... And did you ever ask to see the bank records ... ? And did you ever sign any documents that gave you access to the bank records ... ? And why did you choose not to ask Hakim to see the bank records?" Liman asked, eyes unblinking, head cocked, a long squiggle of gray hair listing across his forehead at half-mast.

The questions that didn't begin with "isn't it a fact" were statements that ended with the question, "... correct?" It became a litany, almost a chant, "... correct? ... correct? ... correct?

"And your position is that the $4.6 million you had to keep in this enterprise?" Liman asked.

"My position is as I stated it, not as you state it," Secord snapped, narrowing his eyes. "So stop trying to change my story and move my story around. The facts are the facts."

Liman: "And the facts are that at the end of this transaction, when you returned the plane, you had $4.6 million left. Isn't that the fact?"

"Yes, fine," Secord said with annoyance. "Get off of it. You know, that's fine."

"Is that the fact?" Liman persisted.

"Yes," Secord said peremptorily, "I'll accept your construction. Go ahead, please."

"Is it the fact?" Liman shot back. "I'm not interested in a construction."

By the end of the day, Secord, who had begun his testimony cloaked in the flag, was somewhat less tightly wrapped.

"The great American hero was not as shiny as he once was made to appear, and in that sense Arthur did a superb job," says Senate Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye. "Somebody had to do it. You can't question General Secord by saying 'Thank you very much and you've been very kind.' "

But the mail was mostly negative, and much of it, according to Inouye, was anti-Semitic. "The first day they showed me the mail," Liman says, "and I was surprised at the intensity of the feelings. Since then I haven't looked at it.

"I answered only one person," he amends a moment later. "The letter said, 'Why don't you ... move to Moscow?'

"And I just answered and said I wouldn't be comfortable there. I'm as American as the writer, and that the purpose of the hearings is to make sure that the United States never becomes a Kremlin. Period. And I felt better for having written to this one person."

Some who watched the hearings that day are convinced Liman pulled back after questioning Secord, perhaps realizing he'd miscalculated, and played it cooler with former national security adviser Robert McFarlane and Secord business partner Albert Hakim. Liman scoffs at this.

"If in order to get the same facts out of a witness you have to use honey, I use honey," he says.

'This Guy Knows How to Investigate' Liman came to town from Manhattan on a snowy day in January. "Arthur called me and said, 'Take your toothbrush, I'm going to Washington this afternoon,' " his wife Ellen remembers.

The group of senators who chose him had begun, according to members of the selection committee, with a list of as many as 50 candidates from all over the country. Liman's name stood out.

"The minute I looked over his bio, in my mind the light bulb went 'click,' " said former senator Thomas Eagleton. " 'This guy is wily, and this guy knows how to investigate.' "

With his narrow-cut suits from Saks and a tonsorial brio that would make a campaign consultant cringe, Liman was about as far from the khaki-suited Capitol Hill mandarin as seemed possible. Which suited everyone just fine. "We weren't looking for Charlton Heston," said Inouye.

Liman calls this investigation the challenge of his career. "I have the best job in the United States!" he says. "I mean this job's a dream job for a lawyer. I have great clients, all very interesting, all very bright. And the subject matter is something I haven't looked at since Government 180 at Harvard. The characters involved are just straight out of a James Bond novel. I mean, where do you get people like Oliver North, Hakim, Secord?"

Or as Washington lawyer and former Watergate investigator James Rowe put it, "Arthur Liman is king of the mountain in New York, and this is his chance to conquer Washington."

Liman is sensitive about appearing too enamored of his new assignment. Asked about his tie clip, a gold-toned clasp decorated with a relief of the Capitol dome, he looks embarrassed and explains, in a pained voice, that it was a gift. Asked about talk that he'd make a good attorney general in the next Democratic administration, he retorts: "You didn't hear it from me."

Gregarious and expansive by nature (when he smiles for a photograph, it is with an ear-to-ear grin), he sounds humble when he appraises his task. "I will never have an assignment that is as important as this, where I can make as many mistakes. This thing could be a disaster," he says. "It weighs very heavily on me."

A disaster would be a notable departure in a notably charmed career.

Liman's practice at the 335-lawyer firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison combines corporate counseling and litigation. "He's that rare combination of someone who's very good in the courtroom and who's able to structure the deal," says one colleague. "He's not the one to prepare a complicated contract," qualifies another top corporate lawyer. "His clients tend to be entrepreneurs."

Liman also has carved out a specialty in securities law and white-collar crime, and has defended the likes of inside trader Dennis Levine, real estate tycoon John Zaccaro (husband of vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro), corporate raider Carl Icahn, shadowy financier Robert Vesco and the founders of Studio 54. His style in the courtroom is straightforward and sincere, and it seems to work on both sides of the witness stand: At the billion-dollar Pennzoil-Texaco trial, Liman's eight days of testimony on behalf of Pennzoil were critical to the jury verdict that sent Texaco to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.

Over the years he also has become invaluable to New York politicians when problems threatened to blossom into full-scale political disasters.

In 1971, for example, he was named chief counsel of the New York state commission on the Attica prison uprising, and he supervised an investigation that included interviews with more than 3,000 witnesses and produced a 470-page report that was published in book form and went on to be nominated for a National Book Award.

Liman supervised the disbarment of Richard Nixon in New York, and in 1985, when The New York Times exposed allegations that the city medical examiner's office had covered up cases of police brutality, Mayor Ed Koch appointed Liman to investigate. Liman, who was charged with determining criminal culpability, found evidence of serious mismanagement but concluded there had been no criminal wrongdoing or cover-up.

The New York State Health Department, however, subsequently used much the same evidence to charge the medical examiner with 11 counts of gross negligence and incompetence, and Liman's report (which the mayor used to give the medical examiner a clean bill of health) was criticized by the New York Daily News and the Amsterdam News as a whitewash. Liman defended his report at the time, and a state health department spokesman now confirms that within his mandate, Liman's report was "pretty devastatingly critical."

In general, however, mention of Liman's name, in and out of New York's legal community, elicits only praise. "The problem with Arthur is that one tends to say things so extravagant they lack plausibility," says Robert Kasanoff, a lawyer who has worked with and against Liman. "He is a first-rate citizen. Decent, single-minded and clearheaded."

His confidence in his own abilities has, on occasion, been viewed as arrogance. A friend insists, however, that while Liman is not given to "humble pie" gestures, he has never been arrogant "in terms of the exercise of power."

Not the Type To Notice the Wine With all of Liman's clearheaded legal activity comes a certain obliviousness to extraneous detail. There's the one about the time that he got into the shower with his shoes on. "Apocryphal," says his wife, who should know.

There was the time he showed up in court in mismatched suit coat and trousers. "That was my fault," says Ellen Liman, "I hung them up wrong."

And the time Liman, in the thick of preparing for trial, instructed his secretary to place a call to a man in Chicago, only to be told that the man had died. "Okay," Liman replied distractedly, according to a former office mate, "just leave word."

"If he's preoccupied, I would say he doesn't even know what he's eating," Ellen Liman says. "I wouldn't say he's the type to notice the wine. Those are flourishes he hasn't had time to develop in his life."

Arthur Liman grew up in Lawrence, Long Island. His mother taught Latin, his father history before joining the family clothing business begun by Liman's Russian-immigrant grandfather. Liman shone at Harvard, and graduated first in his class at Yale law. From there, he joined Paul, Weiss, a distinguished Democratic firm with a long tradition of public service. With the exception of a brief stint in the U.S. attorney's office in the early '60s, he has remained there ever since. He is reportedly the firm's top rainmaker and highest paid partner, earning a $1.1 million in 1985, according to The American Lawyer.

All of this has made Liman a comfortable man, but not necessarily a man comfortable talking about being comfortable. He once scolded American Lawyer Editor in Chief Steven Brill for printing too many stories about lucre and the law, concerned that the rest of the country might think money was the only thing New York lawyers care about.

The Limans live in a Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park. They are active on the philanthropic circuit, and often socialize with high-powered clients. "We like to go to parties," says Ellen Liman, an interior designer and writer active in cultural affairs, "but it's not 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.' "

Liman says a good summation is more important to him than a fee, and that nothing compares to the satisfaction of seeing his three children grow into successful adults. "That's not to say I want to wear sackcloth," he says. "Obviously you need money to enjoy some of the things I enjoy ..."

Fishing, for one. Liman keeps a small boat out at his country place in Westchester County. "He used to say he'd buy a new rod every time he was frustrated," Ellen Liman says. "Maybe it's the challenge that appeals to him. When you're fishing you can't control everything like you can in the courtroom."

The Watergate Paradigm It is possible, say former Watergate investigators, to make too much of the comparisons between Iranscam and Watergate. "Fawn Hall is not Mo Dean and Secord is not John Mitchell in the popular consciousness," says one veteran of the last decade's scandal.

Even Liman's toughest critics concede he was dealt a difficult hand: a popular president, a more conservative Congress, a committee chairman anxious to avoid the bitter partisanship that characterized the Watergate hearings, a committee with more than a few members who have voted for contra aid, and a scandal whose elements are considerably more complicated and tangled than those presented by Watergate.

Still, a more seasoned political operator might have better understood how to exploit the investigation's considerable moral capital.

Liman has conceived the investigation too narrowly, says former Watergate investigator Scott Armstrong, a one-time Washington Post reporter and now founder of the National Security Archives, a nonprofit research library that published an authoritative chronology of the Iran-contra affair. By failing to investigate and expose to public scrutiny the larger web of North and Co.'s covert military operations in Central America (of which the Iran-contra affair is but a part), Armstrong argues, the final report of the joint investigation can only wind up writing around the heart of the problem.

Liman says he has conducted the investigation within the mandate established by Congress. "Just as it was wrong for members of the National Security Council to go outside the scope of their authority because they have a cause, it would be equally wrong for me to go outside a resolution passed by the Senate creating this committee just because I feel that I am the Lone Ranger and I want to right injustice everywhere," he says.

"I don't accept the criticism that we're taking too narrow a view. North has portfolios all over, and that was not only not our mandate, but many of them are compartments that we do not have access to, and are not relevant to this. For example, North was involved in the Grenada invasion ... why not look {into that}? Well, this is not an investigation of North. North is a central figure in it, but it's an investigation of whether or not the administration observed the law in the way in which it gave support to the contras in the period of the Boland Amendment and in the way in which it conducted the Iran initiative.

"There are other committees ... which have ceded power to this committee when it was created, and I don't believe for one moment -- and I'm a novice in Washington -- I don't believe for one moment that those committees would have been willing to entrust this committee with all of this authority to the exclusion of themselves."

"That's complete bull," replies Armstrong. The Watergate committee, he says, had the same jurisdictional battles to fight as its investigation veered from burglary and campaign finance into evidence of domestic spying and other illegalities.

"It's as if the Watergate committee had said, 'All right, Mr. Dean, we understand you want to tell us that this break-in was just one in a series of operations, but that's not our jurisdiction."

The Senate investigation also has been hurt, suggest Armstrong and former Watergate chief counsel Sam Dash, by its August deadline (set by Senate Democrats nervous about pounding too hard on a popular president and Republicans unwilling to let the investigation spill over into a presidential campaign year).

The Watergate investigation lasted well over a year (with interruptions). The committee's first witness was a functionary from the Committee to Re-Elect the President, whose testimony about CREEP's day-to-day tasks provided the foundation for what followed. Star witness John Dean didn't testify until well into the hearings, and by that time, Armstrong says, committee investigators had spent more than 400 hours with him -- and 10 hours for every one of those verifying his version of events with others involved.

Liman says the deadline hasn't been a problem: "If there was some great, new breakthrough ... there'd be the opportunity for extension, but we have gotten the facts." Besides, he argues, it wasn't necessary to proceed as slowly because the foundation already had been laid. "The Tower Commission report was a best seller," he points out.

"You can't make the assumption that the public has read the Tower Commission report," counters Dash. "If you're going to put on a hearing so the public can weigh fault, you have to assume people know nothing, and tell the story in an interesting and dramatic way."

Liman says the committee's narrative has been clear and effective. From the beginning, he says, Inouye and House Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton have "stressed that it was an issue of whether the Constitution is going to be observed in the foreign policy area, whether we're going to condone evasions of the law by privatizing foreign policy, and whether the Congress of the United States is going to be denied its role by withholding information from it.

"I think we did that very well with Secord, and with Hakim. When Hakim said he's more competent than the secretary of state! I mean, that was really getting to the meat of what was wrong here! And with Secord, that he was more effective, more competent than the CIA, that the CIA was all a bunch of shoe clerks, I mean, that we should have entrusted power to people with that kind of attitude really is the guts of this investigation! I think it's what keeps the unity of this committee."

"Maybe It's Just The Air Down Here" Liman hears in the Iran-contra affair echoes from other times.

"If you look through history and you ask yourself what has caused the most damage," he says, "you would reach the conclusion that it was people who thought that they had discovered truth and were prepared to pursue it at all costs. And that's true whether you look at it in terms of the Inquisition, or the Star Chamber period. I don't want to make too dramatic a parallel, but obviously Pol Pot thought he saw truth. At least since the Enlightenment, which gave birth to the ideas on which this country is founded, we've had a very healthy skepticism about people who think they've discovered truth ...

"I think that Fawn Hall in her own way sort of summed it up. She said that sometimes you have to rise above the written law. I don't accept that."

The question of responsibility, he believes, lies heavy over Washington this summer.

"That's, you know, the ultimate question in this investigation as the committee sees it. Who is responsible for creating the environment in which people could have acted this way, in which an ambassador could think that it was part of his duties to open up a southern front, in which a recently naturalized American citizen could think that pledging to overthrow a head of state is natural and so on ... In the end we have to address that."

Liman sighs. "Maybe in the end no one's responsible. Maybe it's just the air down here ...

"I resist the temptation to stereotype any of the figures here. You're dealing with people who are complex, who have mixed motives, who responded to different pressures, and if we're going to learn how to avoid this kind of episode, then we have to understand what the motivations were and what the forces were. Because otherwise the only lesson will be, be certain that you don't hire a bad apple."

But if Liman is pointing no fingers, he can't resist a lighthearted poke.

In his committee office, behind a room full of filing cabinets with fist-sized locks, he shows off two paintings by his wife and then turns to an old print hanging on the back wall.

"This I love," he says, motioning a visitor over for a closer inspection. "I bought it at a flea market. Don't you think it's terrific?"

In the picture, two plump children are pictured as 19th-century Yankee Doodle Dandies. The girl carries a smoking taper. The boy is clutching a fistful of firecrackers. Under their moppets' curls, their eyes have an adult and unsettling gleam.

"Look at those faces," Liman urges. "Look at what it's called."

The caption reads "A Patriotic Pair."

"See," he says with a faint smile, tapping the picture glass: "This is Secord, and this is Hakim."