Elliott Abrams strode into the Senate Caucus Room yesterday morning 10 minutes behind schedule -- Daniel, late for his rendezvous with the lions. Abrams, the aggressive, combative, confident young "point man" for the president on Central America, had come to confront investigators who were armed with evidence of his previous inaccurate statements to Congress.

Six hours later, the lions had proved to be relatively tame, and the witness turned out to be uncharacteristically forgetful and incurious.

For hour after hour, Abrams deflected questions about his knowledge and involvement in the secret operations to supply the Nicaraguan contras with cash and weapons. He either could not recall specific controversial incidents, he testified, or never tried to find out about them.

Not once did Abrams lose his composure, even when House chief counsel John W. Nields Jr. sternly suggested late in the afternoon that he had not told the American people and Congress the truth, thus encouraging public distrust of government officials.

Abrams' general response applied to nearly everything at issue before the two select congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair: discussions about opening a "southern front" between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, about building a secret airstrip in Coast Rica to be used for the contras, about fund-raising efforts on their behalf, and deliveries of arms to them.

But the most significant aspect of Abrams' testimony -- and to the committees, the source of greatest frustration -- involved his relationship with Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, fired from the National Security Council staff last November.

Abrams told the committees about what he took to be an assignment from Secretary of State George P. Shultz "to monitor Ollie" after press reports about North's clandestine activities began to appear two years ago.

"We had a conversation around Labor Day 1985," Abrams said, recalling his conversation with Shultz, "and my memory is that I said something to him like, 'All these accusations about Col. North, do you want me to try to find out whether they're true and what he's up to? Or do you want to sort of leave that?' And he said, 'No, you've got to know.' The note that I have in my notebook says, 'Monitor Ollie.' "

Abrams' monitoring of North, like much of his testimony yesterday, turned out to have been a distant, hands-off affair.

He was fully aware, Abrams testified, that North was deeply involved in many aspects of the contra operation.

"I knew that he knew more about it {fund-raising for the contras} than we in the department did," he said, "and that he seemed to know more about it than CIA did. He once told me, for example, that there was a big network out there of people and companies and bank accounts, which nobody else ever said to me. So, I mean, that is the kind of thing that led to my having the view that he knew more about it than others did."

That response elicited the following exchange between Abrams and Senate deputy counsel Mark A. Belnick that typified the long day of testimony:

Belnick: "By the way, when he said that, did you ask him for details about that big network?"

Abrams: "No."

Belnick: "Ask him about the bank accounts or how he knew about them?"

Abrams: "No."

Belnick: "Why not?"

Abrams: "I was not his supervisor. He worked for a different agency. I was supervising my people. I did ask him at a couple of occasions, and I cannot place the exact dates, whether he was abiding by the law, and on one occasion in particular, I remember he said, 'I have not solicited a nickel.' He may have said, 'a dime.' 'I am not breaking a law, I have checked with White House counsel . . . . ' "

Belnick: "When he told you that what he was doing was legal, did you know what he was doing?"

Abrams: "Well, I assumed I knew what he was doing."

Belnick: "What did you assume that he was doing?"

"I assumed that he was trying to keep track of all those people out there and what they were doing."

In other words, Abrams monitored North who monitored all the other people out there -- but, as Abrams also acknowledged, he never specifically reported back to Shultz what he had learned about North's activities.

The reason, he explained, was because "it seemed to me that I had a pretty good grasp on what he was doing."

His testimony throughout the day, and that given in an earlier deposition, clearly suggested another reason: he didn't ask too many questions because he didn't want to know too many answers. As he said in a deposition before committee counsel: "Most of us were careful not to ask North lots of questions."

Under aggressive questioning from Belnick, Abrams conceded that he never pressed North for details because he was confident "Col. North was not violating the law."

Abrams agreed with the committee lawyer's statement that he "ended up making false statements to the Congress, the public and the press," but added, in a note characteristic of the day: "Making wrong statements is the way I'd put it."