President Reagan actively led the initial effort last November to conceal the essential details of his secret arms-for-hostages program and keep it alive after the first disclosures threatened to blow it up into a major controversy, according to newly released notes of a Nov. 10, 1986, White House meeting.

Presiding at the meeting of all his top Cabinet and White House advisers, Reagan directed that "we don't talk TOWs, don't talk specifics," a reference to the U.S. antitank missiles that made up the bulk of the American deliveries to Iran.

The president had opened the meeting by saying that a statement was needed for "all of us," to indicate "no bargaining with terrorists" and "no ransom for terrorists," according to handwritten notes taken by Alton G. Keel Jr., then deputy national security adviser.

The notes provide a unique inside look at a president who, in the hope of getting more U.S. hostages freed, helped frame an administration statement that omitted that goal and emphasized instead the "international foreign interests" and "hope for moderate government" in Iran. The administration stuck to this line in the weeks that followed, as the Iran-contra affair engulfed the Reagan presidency in a crippling crisis.

At one point in the meeting, then national security adviser John M. Poindexter told the group that White House aide Oliver L. North was just back from Geneva and "might get two more hostages by week-end." In fact, none was freed.

The notes also depict the first skirmish in what Secretary of State George P. Shultz would later call his "battle royal" to stop the arms sales and get the facts out.

Shultz, who had been given only limited information on the program by the president and his staff, apparently because of his strongly voiced opposition to the deals, inquired near the end of the meeting, "Do we trade any more arms for hostages?"

The president, according to the notes, gave the secretary no assurance on this matter and responded only by saying, "Appreciate people saying you support policy -- will not comment on."

At that point, Attorney General Edwin Meese III is recorded as interjecting, "Agree."

The next notation for Shultz reads, "I support you, Mr. President, but more concerned about policy."

Keel's notes of the Nov. 10 meeting were released by the congressional Iran-contra committees last week in a thick stack of documents. The notes were not mentioned in the committees' questioning of Shultz last week.

In his testimony, Shultz identified the late CIA Director William J. Casey and Rear Adm. Poindexter, who attended the Nov. 10 meeting, as his principal opponents in the "battle royal."

But Keel's notes, and Shultz's descriptions of several of his meetings with the president last November, suggest that in the battle to stop the arms sales and secret bargaining with Iran and to get the truth out, Reagan was in command of what the secretary of state called "the other side."

At one point, when the White House chief of staff is recorded as asking "Who will issue Q & A's?" -- a reference to the informational question-and-answer sheets often released to White House reporters -- the notes indicate that Reagan, Meese and Casey responded, Greek-chorus style, "No Q & A's."

The Nov. 10 meeting came four days after the president himself had gone beyond White House "no comment" guidelines and told reporters that there was "no foundation" to fragmentary accounts in a Beirut magazine on Nov. 3 of U.S. arms sales to and high-level dealings with Iran. The president subsequently made misleading statements about the arms sales in a speech Nov. 13, at a news conference Nov. 19 and at two appearances before the Tower review board in 1987.

At a Nov. 25 news conference, Meese, introduced by Reagan, made several misstatements about 1985 arms-for-hostages transactions between Israel and Iran.

On Nov. 18, the White House announced that there would be no more arms sales to Iran. But the president continued to make clear that he had not given up hope of securing the release of Americans held hostage in Lebanon. And he did not order the closing down of the "second channel" to Tehran -- a reference to a relative of the speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani -- that Marine Lt. Col. North, under Poindexter's direction, had opened.

On the 20th, Shultz testified, Reagan appeared unmoved by the arguments the secretary of state made to him that the policy could only be viewed as "arms for hostages" and was a disaster that had to be disavowed publicly.

At the time, according to a memorandum for the files written by Shultz and released last week, the Rafsanjani representatives were "communicating directly with CIA Director Casey."

On Nov. 23, with the Iran-contra operations unraveling, Casey suggested in a letter to the president that he fire Shultz.

Reagan did not take that advice. On the next day, Meese informed him of the discovery that Poindexter and North had been involved in diverting arms sales proceeds to aid the contras. On Nov. 25, Poindexter and North were forced to leave the White House, and a presidential spokesman announced that Iran policy was being shifted from the National Security Council to the State Department.

However, Casey continued to use his direct access to the president to pursue the Iranian connection.

In early December, the State Department learned that a CIA official was to meet with the Iranians in Frankfurt. The State Department decided to use that meeting to inform the Iranians there would be no further arms sales and to make clear that the Central Intelligence Agency would no longer discuss policy with them.

Unbeknown to Shultz, however, Casey had gone behind his back and, using White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, persuaded Reagan to reverse those instructions and put the CIA back into an operational role, according to the secretary of state's testimony last week.

Shultz eventually was forced to go directly to the president, who told him he "wanted to pursue contacts with the Iranians but no more arms would go to them," according to Shultz's memo to the files.

At a Dec. 13 meeting in Frankfurt, the Iranians, despite the State Department representative's announcement that the arms transfers were over, again raised the matter of arms procurement.

The next day, Shultz saw Reagan in the White House and, after explaining details of the Frankfurt talks, felt the president had finally understood that something was "radically wrong."

The day after that, Dec. 15, Casey collapsed at the CIA and was hospitalized with a brain tumor -- hours before he was to have testified on Capitol Hill.

According to Shultz's memo for the files, the Iranians continued to call CIA officials "through mid-January," emphasizing that they still expected U.S. arms to be delivered and expressing displeasure at the involvement of the State Department, which they said was "trying to spoil things."

On Jan. 20, 1987 -- a month after Shultz believed the channel had been closed down -- a CIA official advised the State Department that this had finally been done.

Congressional investigators said last week that the roots of the Iran-contra debacle can be seen in Keel's notes of the Nov. 10 meeting.

Present were Reagan, Vice President Bush, Regan, Casey, Shultz, Poindexter, Keel and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.

The president's opening statement, according to Keel's notes, was followed by a long review by Poindexter that included a reading of the Jan. 17, 1986, secret presidential order governing the 1986 arms sales -- a document that Poindexter indicates "not all of you have seen" -- a reference to Shultz and perhaps others in the group.

In reviewing the history of the operation, however, Poindexter made statements that have since proved wrong. One possibility, investigators said, is that he was mixed up. But another is that he may have been trying to conceal some parts of the operation from Shultz, Weinberger and perhaps others.

Poindexter, for example, listed the number of TOWs sold as 1,000, though the actual number is now put at 2,008. He also said, according to the notes, "1st 500 TOWs went w/o permission -- we found, eventually reimbursed Israel." In fact, the Israelis had said in advance that they planned to make the transfer, and then-national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane had given his approval and promised to replenish them.

At the meeting, the notes indicate an interjection by "Ed," who investigators believe is Meese. "We didn't sell {Israel sold} -- was multi-phased transaction."

Shultz and Weinberger both become the critical questioners after Poindexter completed his review.

At one point, Keel's notes record Weinberger as saying:

"I thought we agreed no more of first 500, unless got all captives," an apparent reference to the original White House plan, presented to the president in January 1986, that all hostages would be released after the shipment of the first 500 TOWs or the program would end.

Poindexter is recorded responding, "just always came back to pres, he agreed to go forward."

The only recorded comment by Bush at the meeting is an indecipherable one referring to Israel.

When the president asserts at one point that it is the responsibility of the government to go to "his or her support," referring to American hostages, Shultz responded, according to the notes: "agree re purpose of govt to protect citizens, but whole purpose is to protect by discouraging terrorism."

He added, "the juxtaposition does appear {we} gave weapons for hostages."

Reagan's last recorded comment, coming after Shultz said he was concerned about the policy, is noted as follows:

"Always viewed as giving muscle to those in Iran so {they} can help us."