To the attorney general of the United States, the Iran-contra affair was a case of confusion, and during his first day on the witness stand Edwin Meese III left as many questions unanswered as answered. His testimony was a curious study in incuriosity.

It was also a study in contradictions between Meese's role as the president's longtime personal adviser, friend and political confidant and his position as the nation's chief legal officer. These, too, were left largely unreconciled by Meese's Capitol Hill appearance yesterday.

For the congressional Iran-contra committees, Meese added another dimension to the parade of witnesses in the hearing rooms and before the television cameras. Retired Air Force major general Richard V. Secord appeared arrogant while testifying; former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane was discursive; Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North was seductive; Rear Adm. John M. Poindexter was evasive; Secretary of State George P. Shultz was wronged.

Meese was affable throughout. And the story he told was marked by singular lack of passion -- and curiosity. As he described it, his inquiry for President Reagan into the origins of the Iran arms deals was casual. He seems to have experienced no sense of alarm, anger or betrayal as he learned that some of the president's closest advisers were deeply involved in what he himself belatedly recognized to be a possible criminal matter.

By his account, he appeared reluctant to ask key officials tough questions about exactly what they knew. He did not directly ask CIA Director William J. Casey, for instance, whether he knew about the diversion of arms sales profits to aid the Nicaraguan contras. He never asked the president whether he knew about the diversion. He apparently never specifically asked Reagan to tell everthing he knew about the early arms-for-hostages discussions, nor did he ask what Reagan had authorized, or what he had been told and by whom. He didn't ask former national security adviser Poindexter whether he had received other memos outlining the diversion scheme sent "up the line" to him by North. He didn't ask his department's criminal division to enter the case until many official documents dealing with it had been altered or destroyed.

One moment yesterday crystalized Meese's state of mind as he described his efforts to gather "the facts" for the president and the American people and end internal administration confusion that he said surrounded the secret U.S.-Iran arms deals. It came when he was being questioned by House chief counsel John W. Nields Jr. about a critical moment in the unraveling political drama last November. It was Nov. 20, when much of the damaging story was being publicly disclosed, much more was in jeopardy of being exposed and Meese had just been informed by Justice Department aides that high government officials had knowledge flatly contradicting stories being given by other key participants.

"Did it at least cross your mind . . . that you might be dealing with something more than just confusion?" Nields asked the attorney general.

"No sir, it did not," Meese replied. "As a matter of fact, that didn't cross my mind at any time during that day or the next several days."

The night before at a nationally televised news conference, Reagan had given information about the Iran arms sales that Meese testified he knew to have been inaccurate -- a matter of Reagan's being poorly briefed, Meese said he believed -- and Casey was preparing to give congressional intelligence committees a misleading story that "oil drilling equipment" instead of arms had been shipped to Iran by Israel a year before. Poindexter was also to brief intelligence committees the next day.

In that context, Meese received two phone calls from Justice Department aides at West Point, where he was speaking. They warned him that McFarlane had told Shultz that Hawk missiles, not oil-drilling equipment, had been shipped to Iran a year before -- and that Shultz had contemporaneous notes to prove it. Meese was also told, according to testimony before the committee, that Shultz's State Department legal adviser, Abraham D. Sofaer, "was sufficiently alarmed about this issue" that he or others in the government were "ready to resign over it."

Meese said he canceled a trip to Harvard University and returned to Washington, explaining: "I felt that I owed a duty to the president to let him know that there was a great deal of confusion about this matter, and this was obviously a major issue as far as the administration was concerned."

This prompted him to tell the president the next day in an Oval Office meeting also attended by Donald T. Regan, then White House chief of staff, "that I was concerned that there seemed to be a lot of confusion among the people who were participating or who had some knowledge of the Iranian initiative."

Out of that came his charge from the president "to develop an overview of the facts" -- with a promise that it would be completed by 2 p.m. the following Monday in time for a scheduled National Security Planning Group meeting on Iran.

By Monday, Meese had learned of the now-famous North "diversion" memo. In his testimony yesterday, he told how he informed the president and chief of staff Regan about the diversion scheme. The president was "quite surprised," he said, and indicated he had not known about it. Regan was also "quite surprised."

But none of them, according to Meese's testimony, demanded to know more. They didn't ask to have Poindexter or North summoned before them to clear things up, or ask what other potentially damaging or embarrassing events might have occurred. Like Ed Meese, the president's lawyer and friend, they all seemed to view it as a case of some confusion.