Reading through the mountain of testimony and exhibits released so far in the Iran-contra hearings, you get the feeling that maybe Ollie North and his friends should have been working for a Lebanese militia.

Except that the Lebanese militias generally get the job done, which is more than you can say for Lt. Col. North.

It's this tawdry, Third World aspect of North's operation that lingers in the mind after the first phase of the Iran-contra hearings. The characters remind me of people I used to cover as a correspondent in Beirut. They have the theatricality and swashbuckling semi-competence of militiamen. At times, they seem like characters in a Levantine spy tale: harried, self-important, devious and inept.

Like their counterparts in the Mideast, the NSC militiamen have trouble distinguishing between public and private funds. They cut corners: a set of snow tires here, a $200,000 trust fund there. They talk endlessly about The Cause, but they end up driving Porsches and maintaining fat bank accounts in Switzerland.

Albert Hakim admitted this month, under questioning by committee counsel Arthur Liman, that what he did for North & Co. -- paying baksheesh, opening secret Swiss bank accounts, taking care of his business partners -- wasn't very different from what he used to do as a businessman in Iran.

It's embarrassing, this Lebanization of American foreign policy. We have an assistant secretary of state using a pseudonym -- "Mr. Kenilworth" -- when he travels to London as a bagman for the sultan of Brunei. We have an official of the National Security Council allegedly pocketing $2,440 in travellers' checks from a Central American rebel leader and cashing them, one by one, at such places as Giant Food, Drug Fair, Sugarland Texaco, Parklane Hosiery and National Tire Wholesalers.

Private armies are like that. Operating secretly, moving unvouchered funds back and forth among secret bank accounts, the militiaman lives in a netherworld. He may have begun with the highest ideals, as Lt. Col. North probably did, but he is almost always corrupted by the shadowy world in which he operates.

Our NSC militiamen, like their Lebanese counterparts, turn out to be a mistrustful bunch. In fact, they don't even trust each other -- and are forever sending messages boasting of their own talents and bad-mouthing someone else.

Take Richard Secord. Communicating on March 3, 1986 under the alias "Copp," the retired Air Force lieutenant general complains about a refueling problem for the contras' airlift. "It's time we put a stop to this pettifogging and idiocy . . . ," demands Secord. "I assure you I could in a few hours if I were in the bureaucracy. The bottom line is that a few fools are burning up all our time and effectively aiding the enemy."

On March 27, 1986, Secord is bitching again: "Too many cooks in this broth . . . . This whole mess is result of incompetence on the CIA's part or worse."

It's enough to make you feel sorry for the CIA.

On April 11, 1986, Secord is fuming about a busted air drop: "I want to try again tonight an hour earlier but {U.S. military group commander in El Salvador, Col. James} Steele has informed Ralph {CIA agent Raphael Quintero} that he will not permit another 'half-ass' operation. He says we have to establish air/ground radio contact before he will permit op to go forward. This is asinine -- no black ops ever use this procedure."

(Gen. Secord, the self-proclaimed expert on covert operations, commits one comical lapse of security. In one message signed "Blue Bird," he refers to North by the code name "Goode" -- but gives a White House telephone number where he can be reached! "Goode's number is out. 395-5887 works," advises Secord.)

Secord's associate Robert Dutton, meanwhile, is griping about former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez, also known as "Max." Complains Dutton: "Max is trying to blackmail us by threatening that {deleted} will reveal the operation, will charge $600,000 landing fees, etc. Max has been and continues to be a big security threat."

This same Max, we learned during last month's hearings, had been trying to warn North that the secret contra-support operation was "worse than Watergate, and that it was going to destroy the president." No wonder they regarded him as a security risk.

The bitching and back-biting continued to the very end. In early November 1986, as the story of the Iran fiasco was beginning to dribble out, former national security adviser Robert McFarlane complained to his successor, John Poindexter, about the nefarious doings of White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan.

"Having been out of town for two days and maintaining the no-comment line, I returned today to find that Don Regan has backgrounded the weeklies and laid the entire problem at my feet . . . . I must tell you that if this is true, I will be quite mad. This will be the second lie that Don Regan has sowed against my character and I won't stand for it . . . . I won't tolerate lies from Don Regan."

Nothing like teamwork.

In contrast to our NSC militiamen, many of the actual Third Worlders encountered during the Iran affair seem like upstanding fellows.

Consider the Iranian official known as "the second channel." Hakim testified that he offered him a small bribe -- "some shirts and jeans for his kids" -- but the Iranian official would have none of it. He tried politely to reimburse Hakim and when he balked, thrust a $100 bill in Hakim's pocket. Good for the Iranian!

And pity the poor sultan of Brunei. Pestered by no less than the secretary of state to contribute to the contras, the sultan asked only that we "assure him categorically there would be no publicity and no leaks." Thereupon, he dutifully wrote a check for $10 million, and received a secret thank you note from George Shultz that said: "We greatly appreciate your support for this endeavor which we believe has great importance for the overall security of the free world."

Meanwhile, the geniuses in Ollie North's militia were giving the Sultan the wrong bank account number. The money ended up in the account of a Swiss businessman.

When the Iran scandal blew up and the State Department advised that the secret Swiss bank account was "an inappropriate channel in light of recent events," the poor sultan was left holding the bag. The American embassy reported that a Brunei official "was surprised and visibly shaken . . . . His only comment was: 'We did this as a good faith gesture to a friend. Let us hope that as a result {Brunei} does not become part of a public scandal.' "

It's enough to make even a charitable reader feel a bit queasy. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) said exactly that when he complained to Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams last December during a secret hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee about earlier testimony in which Abrams had misled the committee about the Brunei solicitation. The exchange, initially marked "top secret codeword" but since declassified, makes interesting reading:

"SENATOR EAGLETON: Were you then in the fund-raising business?

"MR. ABRAMS: I would say we were in the fund-raising business. I take your point.

"SENATOR EAGLETON: Take my point? Under oath, my friend, that's perjury. Had you been under oath, that's perjury.

"MR. ABRAMS: Well, I don't agree with that.

"SENATOR EAGLETON: That's slammer time.

"MR. ABRAMS: I don't agree with that, Senator.

"SENATOR EAGLETON: Oh, Elliott, you're too damn smart not to know --

"MR. ABRAMS: I think that the --

"SENATOR EAGLETON: . . . You were in the fund-raising business, you and Ollie. You were opening accounts, you had account cards, you had two accounts and didn't know which account they were going to put it into.

"MR. ABRAMS: You've heard my testimony.

"SENATOR EAGLETON: I've heard it, and I want to puke." David Ignatius, an associate editor of The Washington Post, edits the Outlook section.