Attorney General Edwin Meese III yesterday defended his four-day effort to seek the facts of the Iran-contra affair last November, telling congressional questioners that the conflicting accounts he received from other top Reagan administration officials did not cause him to suspect that "more was involved than confusion."

Meese, on his first day of testimony before the two Iran-contra select committees, reiterated the basic story he has told for the last eight months, frequently relying on notes of key meetings to describe how he and his deputies uncovered evidence that profits from U.S. arms sales to Iran had been diverted to aid the Nicaraguan contras.

No notes exist, however, for one crucial conversation that Meese recounted in detail: the brief meeting last Nov. 24 when Meese informed then-national security adviser John M. Poindexter of the discovery of a National Security Council staff draft memo that referred to the diversion.

Meese said: "I asked him whether he knew about this . . . and I believe his exact words or close to his exact words were: 'Ollie {Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North} has given me enough hints about this so that I generally knew, but I did nothing to follow up or stop it.' "

Meese said he asked then-Vice Adm. Poindexter, "Have you told anyone else, or does anyone else in the White House know?" Poindexter replied no, Meese said, and that was sufficient for him to assume that President Reagan had not been told.

Poindexter testified earlier about this conversation. He said that Meese did not ask him directly whether he had told the president about the diversion and he did not tell Meese that he authorized the diversion himself without the president's knowledge.

More typical of Meese's responses yesterday was one that referred to his climactic, two-hour interview with then-NSC aide North on Nov. 23, which led to North's dismissal from the White House staff on Nov. 25 for his role in the diversion of funds:

"I cannot recall in sufficient detail to answer those questions. I can when my recollection is refreshed by the notes."

He then began reading verbatim from the handwritten notes of the North interview made by his Justice Department aide, John Richardson.

One of the few sharp exchanges in a day of testimony almost devoid of the tension and drama that has characterized much of the 11 weeks of hearings occurred when Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) charged that Meese's department had delayed producing some records and refused to comply with committee requests for others over a six-month period.

Rodino said the committees had not received telephone records of the Miami U.S. attorney's office, which had been investigating arms shipments to the contras fighting the government of Nicaragua, as well as telephone logs and message sheets of Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, who assisted in the Meese fact-finding inquiry and had two conversations with North's former lawyer.

Rodino also complained that a handwritten telephone log of Meese's calls for Nov. 24 had not been provided, and when committee investigators went to the office they found it contained phone calls to former White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan, Vice President Bush, Poindexter and former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane.

Meese replied curtly, "Well, Mr. Rodino, all I know is that you must have received the information or you wouldn't have it in front of you right now."

In other testimony, Meese:Declared that the "Boland Amendment" that restricted most U.S. aid to the contras from 1984-86 applied to the NSC staff, a view that conflicts with those expressed by Poindexter, North and the counsel for the President's Intelligence Oversight Board. To his knowledge, Meese said, the NSC never asked the Justice Department for a legal opinion on the matter. Said it was a violation of law for government officials to lie to Congress, and declared there was no legal exemption for NSC officials. Identified Regan as the person who first suggested to the president on Nov. 24 that North be "reassigned" because of his "unauthorized" activities in diverting arms sales money to support the contras. Regan also suggested that Poindexter be asked for his resignation, according to Meese. Said he could not "recollect" who had provided the factual basis for his statement at a news conference last Nov. 25 that the president first learned about a November 1985 Israeli shipment of Hawk antiaircraft missiles to Iran several months after the delivery. Meese said he believed he had heard it from North or McFarlane. By that time he had been told a contrary story by Secretary of State George P. Shultz, according to Shultz's testimony before the panels. Disclosed that within hours of a news conference in which he had identified Israel as the conduit for the diverted arms sales funds that went to the contras, he received a phone call from then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Peres advised Meese that the money had been paid directly by Iranians and went to the account of an American company in Switzerland, and the Israelis were not aware of the identity of the beneficiary. Revealed that he did not read the memo found in the NSC files referring to the diversion of funds -- the "smoking gun" memo -- until the day after his deputies had found it. And when he interviewed North the day after the discovery, Meese said, he was unable to recall asking the North directly if he had written the memo. Said he had not seen until recently a draft memo written by Ralph D. Martin, a Justice Department lawyer in the Criminal Division. The memo, which discussed information that might be the basis for appointment of an independent counsel to look into possibly illegal activities relating to the contras, was written immediately after Meese disclosed the diversion scheme.

Martin's memo mentioned that the Justice Department's fraud section had confirmed that federal funds appropriated for humanitarian aid to the contras had been traced to secret bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, where they "were apparently used to bribe members of {the Honduran} military."

The memo also said that the fraud section had established that individuals associated with the Central Intelligence Agency submitted false documents to cover the fact that money for humanitarian relief had been used to buy weapons, but it did not give any detail of how much money or what kind of weapons.

Meese began his appearance with a strong defense of his inquiry: "We were able to piece together a basic outline of what is now known as the Iran-contra story, which has been essentially validated during the extensive investigations which have occurred since."

Meese noted that his inquiry was only a day old when, on Saturday, Nov. 22, his deputies turned up the diversion memo. "I brought this information to the president, who determined that it should be reported promptly to the Congress and the American people, and that immediate corrective action should be taken . . . . Although our information was by no means complete, and we recognized that much investigative activity would follow, the president requested that I disclose all that we had learned to date so that there would be no claim of withholding of information or charge of 'cover-up,' " he said.

Meese made only a passing reference in the prepared statement, however, to the "destruction of documents," which North testified he carried out after learning of Meese's inquiry on Nov. 21, and again on Nov. 22, while Justice Department officials were in an adjacent NSC office.

Later in his testimony Meese said it was "impossible" that this could have happened.

Later, the issue of document destruction arose again when House committee chief counsel John W. Nields Jr. questioned Meese about how North reacted when confronted with the "smoking gun" memo.

Meese described North as "shocked." Nields pursued this, asking whether that reaction created a suspicion in Meese's mind that North might have taken steps to get rid of all such documents. Meese responded, "I don't know whether he was surprised that this document was still around or what the basis of his shock was."

Nields led Meese through a series of key meetings and interviews between Nov. 20-25, during which the attorney general had heard various accounts of the controversial November 1985 Israeli shipment of 18 U.S.-made Hawk missiles to Iran. The shipment went forward with U.S. knowledge.

Nields established the following sequence of events:

On Nov. 20, Meese attended a meeting at which North said no one in the U.S. government knew the shipment contained arms.

That same night, a senior deputy called him to warn that the State Department was disputing that.

On Nov. 21, McFarlane told Meese he had no recollection of Hawks being in the shipment, and said he thought it was "materials," possibly oil drilling equipment.

On the morning of Nov. 22, a Saturday, Meese learned from Shultz and CIA general counsel Stanley Sporkin that Hawks were in the shipment and that the CIA had prepared an intelligence finding, for Reagan's signature, authorizing the CIA to facilitate the delivery.

Yet when Nields asked if the conflicts led him to believe that "something more than confusion was involved," Meese said he did not.

Late in the afternoon on Nov. 22, Meese met with CIA Director William J. Casey at his home at Casey's request. Meese testified that Casey told him that some Canadian financiers were threatening a lawsuit, claiming they were owed money from a previous Iran arms shipment and that some of it was being used for other Israeli-U.S. projects.

In short, Meese was being told of a form of diversion just hours after he had been told of North's memo.

But Meese said he did not use this opportunity to question Casey about the director's knowledge of funds being used for other purposes.

Meese remembered the discussion but recalled Casey telling him that Poindexter had provided assurances that "nothing that went wrong had happened in regard to the funds."

There appeared to be only a brief moment when the committees were able to dent Meese's carefully prepared presentation. That came when Rodino asserted that Shultz had told him on the morning of Nov. 22 of his concern that Southern Air Transport had a link to both the Iran and the contra operation.

Meese, smiling, came back at Rodino: "I don't believe that was ever stated to me," and supported that by saying there was no mention of the Southern Air in the notes that his two aides had made of the interview.

Senate select committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) said a reference to Southern Air was contained in the notes of the meeting taken by a Shultz assistant, M. Charles Hill.

But a Justice Department spokesman said yesterday that Hill's notes on that page also cover a meeting Shultz had with State Department legal adviser Abraham D. Sofaer and may have referred to that conversation.

Staff researcher Michelle Hall contributed to this article.