For months now, we have been witnessing the unraveling of the Iran-contra tale. With respect to Jeane Kirkpatrick {op-ed, July 6}, the scandal did not begin with "a leak in a Middle Eastern newspaper." It began when this administration decided to sell arms to a terrorist country that we were telling our allies not to arm. It began when the administration sought to swap arms for hostages while insisting that we would never ransom hostages.

The real scandal began when the president allowed his deputies to conduct a covert policy that ran counter to our public policy and our public laws.

The American people now know that the North/Secord "residuals" were diverted from the sale of arms to support the contras. From the Tower Commission and ongoing hearings, we are learning how this policy was implemented: by keeping key Cabinet members in the dark, by trampling on laws passed by Congress and signed by the president, and by misleading Congress and the American people.

Elliott Abrams played a deliberate role in this deception. Throughout his appearance before the investigating committees, a clear pattern emerged in regard to his past dealings with Congress. Abrams evaded the most pertinent questions, understated the level of U.S. government involvement with the contras, relied on the most narrow and technically accurate responses to committee inquiries and, on at least one occasion, lied to Congress. In sum, Abrams prevented Congress from exercising its legitimate oversight of U.S. foreign policy. This led me and more than 100 other members of Congress to call for his dismissal.

Kirkpatrick and Charles Krauthammer {op-ed, July 3} have argued that demanding Abrams' resignation is really a disingenuous effort to derail the contra war. While many members of Congress have long opposed administration policy, we have never sought to replace any of Abram's predecessors over a policy dispute. It is a question of credibility, not ideology. Congress cannot implement policy. It passes laws and trusts the executive branch to carry them out. This division of labor puts a high priority on full and candid consultation.

Rather than promote this type of exchange, Abrams chose to honor a pledge of confidentiality to the sultan of Brunei. Rather than provide a factual response, under well-established ground rules, to the appropriate committee of Congress charged with oversight of covert activities, Abrams chose to lie. Not to the Soviets, not to the Iranians, not to the Sandinistas -- but to the U.S. Congress. Kirkpatrick argues that Congress has the responsibility to honor pledges to foreign governments, and I agree. But we also have the right to know about these pledges.

As far as destroying administration policy toward Nicaragua, this is hardly necessary. The policy was flawed from the start. It has been billed as a way to make the Sandinistas "cry uncle" and come to the negotiating table. But the contras are not interested in compromise; they want to lead an army into Managua. And while the administration talks about negotiations it has gone to all lengths to keep its undeclared war going.

The tragedy of our policy in the region is that it did not have to happen this way. It is clear to me that the United States, with all the political, economic, diplomatic and military tools available, can negotiate clear and verifiable security arrangements that preserve our vital interests, protect our allies and end Soviet and Cuban activism in the region. These goals are shared by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and by the administration. We have the ability to use this consensus on goals to reach consensus on policy.

In fact, we have done it before.

For years, Egypt was a country opposed to U.S. policy in the Middle East and bolstered close ties to the Soviet Union. With a combination of American diplomatic leadership and great political courage of the leaders of Israel and Egypt, the Camp David Accords reversed this situation. After fighting four wars within 30 years, Israel and Egypt are at peace. And the United States continues to outflank the Soviet Union in the region. All this was accomplished without a U.S. secret war, hiring soldiers of fortune or lying to Congress and the American people.

A policy cannot survive without broad public support. From the start, a majority of Americans has opposed funding the contras to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. It's time to chart a new course. The Egypt case study provides an object lesson of how the United States can advance its interests, outmaneuver the Soviets and bring peace and security to a region. We will not know if the same is possible in Central America until we try. The writer, a Democratic representative from Ohio, is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.