At 5:57 p.m. Friday, May 29, the notice arrived informing Capitol Hill that the administration intended to sell Saudi Arabia 1,600 of the latest Maverick antitank missiles.

Less than four hours earlier, congressional staffers had warned administration officials sharply and clearly: The sale was going to be controversial, the timing was terrible and more consultations were needed before any notification -- informal or formal -- was sent to Congress.

"It was made perfectly clear -- please do not send it {a notification} up today," said one source familiar with the proceedings. "Does it make sense to do this on Friday afternoon at 5:57 when you know they are controversial?"

By all congressional accounts, the administration's latest failed attempt to show support for a key Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, at a critical juncture in U.S. relations with all its Persian Gulf Arab allies was botched from start to finish.

President Reagan's surprise decision Thursday to withdraw "temporarily" the proposed Maverick sale left the administration in retreat, the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) delighted with an easy victory and the Saudis once again "shocked and dismayed" at the outcome.

Reagan said his decision had been "precipitated" by strong congressional opposition. But the view from the Hill was that the White House had itself "precipitated" the confrontation by failing to heed the danger signs.

The decision came during delicate negotiations between Washington and Riyadh over a U.S. request for Saudi F15 air cover for American surveillance aircraft over the entire Persian Gulf and possible access to Saudi air bases for American jet fighters. The United States needs the assistance to help provide military protection for 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers.

The impact on those negotiations is unclear. But critics and supporters of the Maverick sale said the withdrawal will shake further Saudi faith in the administration.

Critics, including Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), charged the administration with insensitivity to the mood of Congress. They also said it was further evidence of general bungling by an administration whose foreign policy is being sharply questioned because of its proposal to use U.S. military forces to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers threatened by Iranian attacks.

"The White House was operating on its own wavelength and wasn't tuned in on the mood in Congress," remarked one congressional source. "They had their radars turned off."

Had those "radars" been on they would have picked up signals of deep congressional discontent with Saudi Arabia that stemmed from an early report of the Saudi failure on May 17 to intercept the Iraqi jet that attacked the USS Stark, killing 37 U.S. sailors. Despite administration attempts to defend the Saudis' behavior, AIPAC and congressional opponents of Saudi arms sale had taken the report and run with it.

Adding to this discontent were what Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, called "serious questions" about the willingness of the Saudis "to carry their share of the load in gulf defenses and to work with us."

By all administration accounts, the White House as well as the State and Defense departments were taken off guard by the strength of congressional opposition to the sale.

"We did not perceive of this Maverick sale as in the least politically sensitive," a self-described "surprised" Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy told the committee Wednesday.

"We didn't expect an uproar in the wake of the Stark incident," remarked another administration official, "because we thought we had put that . . . lie to rest of the Saudi failure to intercept the Iraqi jet."

Murphy said Congress was first informed of the proposed Maverick sale to Saudi Arabia in February, when the administration sent Congress a report of all planned arms sales in the Middle East. Since then, he said, there had been a "steady process" of consultations.

Independent accounts said the White House also blundered by trying to cut from 50 to 30 days the time Congress has to disapprove any proposed arms sales abroad worth more than $14 million.

Legally, there is a 30-day formal notification, But under a "gentleman's agreement" worked out in 1976, the administration normally provides an "informal" notification of a pending arms sale 20 days before the formal one to permit quiet consultations, and in the case of controversial sales, time to work out changes to avoid embarrassing either the White House or the foreign recipient.

None of the congressional aides attending the administration's briefing on Friday, May 29, understood that the White House wanted to skip the informal notification.

When the administration both ignored the warnings of probable trouble over the sale and decided to go ahead with only a 30-day formal notification, key congressmen were doubly annoyed.

Senate and House members alike vented their rage last week. "I don't think I've seen people so irritated before," remarked one congressional source.

The State Department, seeking belatedly to make amends, succeeded in irritating Congress more by offering a "concession" that made matters worse.

In a June 5 letter to Pell, Edward J. Derwinski, undersecretary for security assistance, offered to delay a letter of offer for the sale for 20 days after the 30-day formal notification period ended June 28 "on a one-time exceptional basis."

But the special rules that permit Congress to vote quickly on a resolution of disapproval would not have applied during the extra 20-day period.

Pell politely called the administration gesture "too little, too late." Others, like Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), charged that the offer "completely changed" the understanding for an additional 20-day period of consultation before, not after, formal notification.

Congressional experts on arms sales said last week the administration should first have convinced Congress that Saudi Arabia was not at fault during the Stark incident.

It should also have outlined the assistance Saudi Arabia was willing to extend to the forces escorting the Kuwaiti tankers, they said.

Early Thursday morning, Reagan withdrew notification of the proposed Maverick sale as precipitously as he had submitted it.

The decision, announced in Venice and reportedly taken on the advice of political aides, left his foreign policy advisers as "shocked and dismayed" as the Saudis were said to be.

State and Defense Department officials and National Security Council experts on the Middle East were convinced some of the 67 Senate opponents to the sale would switch sides once Congress was briefed on the assistance Saudi Arabia was willing to provide U.S. forces.

But the White House reportedly was alarmed at how fast Senate opposition to the sale had gathered and feared a vote of disapproval would be passed before it even had a chance to argue its case on behalf of the Saudis.

It is not clear whether the administration could successfully resubmit the proposal. Although Reagan promised to undertake additional consultations with Congress and resubmit the notification "at the earliest possible date," several congressional sources said they thought the Maverick proposal was now "dead, dead."