Attorney General Edwin Meese III's top aides, who helped him conduct the initial fact-finding inquiry that led to last fall's discovery of the diversion of funds to the contras, stayed closely involved with the investigation even after it was turned over to the Justice Department's Criminal Division, according to a deposition released by the Iran-contra committees last week.

In the deposition, Assistant Attorney General William F. Weld, the head of the Criminal Division, described tension between Meese's close advisers, Assistant Attorneys General William Bradford Reynolds and Charles J. Cooper, and Criminal Division lawyers and FBI agents over the handling of the inquiry.

Weld's deposition offered an unusual glimpse of behind-the-scenes power struggles at the Justice Department last fall as officials there scrambled to respond to the revelations of the arms-for-hostages deal and the diversion to the contras of funds from arms sales to Iran.

For example, Weld said, over the objections of Weld and other prosecutors, Reynolds insisted on meeting Dec. 1 with his longtime friend Thomas C. Green, the lawyer for retired Air Force major general Richard V. Secord, who ran the private network that supplied the contras. In a meeting with Reynolds on Nov. 24, Green had urged that the operation not be made public.

According to a memorandum of a committee lawyers' interview with Reynolds, Green called Reynolds Dec. 1 and said "he wanted to talk with personnel at DOJ before the government did anything stupid like seeking the appointment of an independent counsel."

Weld said Reynolds did not mention his longstanding relationship with Green.

"I said, 'Look, you might be a fact witness in this whole shouting match about your weekend investigation, so it may not be advisable for you to go meeting with counsels,' " Weld said. He said both he and William C. Hendricks III, a veteran prosecutor who was also working on the investigation, were opposed to meeting with Green at that stage at all.

Although "I pressed him pretty hard," Weld said, Reynolds "didn't buy my scenario about fact witness," and "thought he could advance the ball" by meeting with Green. He agreed that Hendricks also should attend.

Weld said he called Associate Attorney General Stephen S. Trott to ask whether he should "go over the cliff on it . . . raise it up to the AG {Meese}, pull it all over the floor."

Trott decided that with Hendricks present, "that is probably survivable," Weld said.

In another incident, Weld described an attempt by Cooper to keep the investigation of the Iranian arms initiative "on a civil track, although it might throw off leads for the criminal investigation," while the criminal investigation was limited to the diversion of funds to the contras.

That suggestion, Weld said, "was run up the flagpole and not saluted." He said there was "no way was I going to look only at the Nicaragua side of the fence."

Justice Department spokesman Terry Eastland, asked about the deposition, said that "quite apart from whatever independent struggles went on," the "larger picture tells us the attorney general made a decision to hand off anything to the independent counsel." Meese requested that an independent counsel be appointed Dec. 4.

Meese's order that Cooper be made a part of the prosecution team did not sit well with some of the FBI agents assigned to the case, Weld said. Cooper made a similar point in his testimony before the committee last month.

Weld said, "At one point, I think Chuck said that he . . . certainly hoped that, you know, no major actions would be taken in his absence or without him participating, and the Bureau guys just looked at him, and afterwards {agent} Jeff Jamar or one of the Bureau guys asked me, 'Hey, what is Cooper going to do?' "

The FBI, Weld said, viewed Cooper "as a 'political' assistant AG."

In fact, he said, as it turned out the FBI appeared reluctant to provide information even to career Justice Department lawyers because "they knew they were going to have a new prosecutor in a few days."

In the deposition, Weld related what happened in the Justice Department as details of the administration's secret arms sales to Iran began to emerge last November.

At a morning meeting Nov. 21, Weld said, he argued "with some warmth" that it was "crazy" for Meese to "be a gumshoe," gathering facts about the initiative.

He said he told other top Justice Department officials that "it is crazy to have the top people going out doing fact research." Later that day, Meese and several trusted aides began the widely criticized fact-finding mission that uncovered the "smoking gun" memo indicating that profits from the Iranian arms sales had been diverted to the Nicaraguan contra rebels.

Weld said he suggested that Justice Department criminal lawyers and FBI agents take part in the fact-finding inquiry because he was worried about a major criminal case in New York involving Iranian arms sales. The defendants in that case argue their actions had government approval, but a prosecutor had asserted in court Nov. 17 that there was no connection between the two initiatives.

"My point was in order to make a representation to the court, you have to have somebody who knows all the facts of the {New York} case and all the facts of the U.S. arms sales, and that it didn't make sense for very high-ranking officials to be researching the U.S. government side of the case unles they were intimately familiar with the {New York} side of the case as well," Weld said.

As Meese and his aides were interviewing Lt. Col. Oliver L. North that weekend, Weld said, he was essentially kept in the dark. North is the fired White House aide who directed the Iran-contra operation.

He said Meese called him that Monday and "said words to the effect of, 'I just want you to know with respect to this Iran matter that the fact that the Criminal Division is not involved is not negligence or a product of sloppiness, and you should not be concerned that matters are . . . falling between the cracks. This is being done that way on purpose.' "

But Weld said Meese did not tell him what was being done, and that his first inkling of the discovery that led to the resignation of national security adviser John M. Poindexter and the firing of North was when his deputy, March Richard, called the next day to tell him that Meese had just held a news conference.

"I said, 'Wait, wait. Time out. You better get in here and bring me up to speed on this,' " Weld recalled.

Almost immediately, he said, Trott summoned them to meet with Cooper "and scope out what the possible criminal implications of this scenario . . . might be."

The lawyers then kicked around that issue "like the first-year law school exam question . . . 'What crimes?' " Weld said.

The next day, Nov. 26, Weld testified, Meese told him, "Bill, today is the day for handoff to the FBI and to the Criminal Division."

The deposition was taken July 16 at the Rayburn House Office Building by lawyers for the House and Senate select committees investigating the Iran-contra affair.