Felix I. Rodriguez, a retired CIA agent sent to El Salvador in 1985 with assistance from the office of Vice President Bush, told a high-ranking U.S. military official at the time that his "primary commitment" in Central America was helping the Nicaraguan contras, according to documents made public by the Iran-contra committees.

The statement by Rodriguez appears to conflict with repeated claims by the vice president and his national security adviser, Donald P. Gregg, that Rodriguez was sent to El Salvador to assist the Salvadoran Air Force in combating the leftist insurgency there.

Rodriguez made the statement about his "primary commitment" in a February 1985 meeting with Gen. Paul F. Gorman, then in charge of the Army's Southern Command that oversees U.S. military operations in Central America, according to Gorman's report of the meeting.

Gregg has said he did not learn that Rodriguez was helping the contras until Rodriguez told him about it more than a year later, on Aug. 8, 1986, and Bush has said that in three meetings with Rodriguez, he never discussed the contras.

After a C123K cargo plane carrying military supplies to the contras was shot down in Nicaragua last October, killing three Americans and leading to capture of crew member Eugene Hasenfus, questions were raised about Bush's link to Rodriguez.

The White House initially denied U.S. government involvement in the resupply mission. But investigations have shown that the first word of the downing of the aircraft came to the Reagan administration in a phone call to Bush's office from Rodriguez, and that the missions were coordinated from the White House by Lt. Col. Oliver L. North at the National Security Council.

After first denying that he ever talked with Rodriguez about the contras, Gregg later acknowledged that he had done so at an Aug. 8, 1986, meeting in his office, and that he convened a meeting four days later to relay Rodriguez's concerns about the secret resupply mission to other U.S. officials. The vice president's office later issued a chronology of contacts with Rodriguez that omitted several key events.

Angered by polls suggesting that many people believe he has not been truthful about the Iran-contra affair, Bush, front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has said repeatedly this summer that the Iran-contra hearings have shown he was "telling the truth."

Rodriguez, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion, testified to the Iran-contra committees that after a meeting with Bush he went to El Salvador to help the Salvadoran Air Force. He testified he was secretly recruited in September 1985 by North to act as a liaison between the resupply operation and Salvadoran military officials at the Ilopango air base.

The Ilopango base was used for secret resupply missions to the contras at a time when Congress had cut off military aid to the rebels. Rodriguez testified that he never told Bush that he was helping the contras and did not tell Gregg until the Aug. 8, 1986, meeting.

But a number of newly released documents, which Rodriguez was not asked about in his congressional testimony, show that he discussed making the contras his top priority on the trip in February 1985 when he met with Gorman. Rodriguez made the trip after meeting with Bush and Gregg in Washington.

The documents also disclose that Rodriguez's intentions to make the contras his top priority were known at that time to a number of U.S. policymakers, including North at the NSC, and senior State and Defense department officials.

Gregg was unavailable for comment about the documents. However, a source familiar with Gregg's deposition to the Iran-contra committees said Gregg had been asked about the documents and responded that he had never seen them. Gregg also said he had talked to Gorman, but that Gorman had not told him of the Rodriguez statement on his "primary commitment," the source said.

According to the chronology issued last December by the vice president's office, Gregg and Rodriguez, both Central Intelligence Agency veterans, were longtime friends who worked together in Vietnam, where Rodriguez devised a tactic of using pinpoint helicopter raids against guerrilla units in provinces near Saigon. In late 1984 and early 1985, Gregg put Rodriguez in touch with high-ranking U.S. officials in Washington so Rodriguez could explain how the helicopter raids could be used in El Salvador. According to the chronology, Rodriguez met with the vice president and Gregg on Jan. 22, 1985, to tell Bush of his plans to "work in El Salvador against the insurgency."

The new documents shed light on a trip Rodriguez made to Central America shortly thereafter.

Just before the trip, on Feb. 8, Gorman sent a cable about Rodriguez to State Department officials. A censored version of the cable was released by the Iran-contra committees. Gorman described Rodriguez as having been "put into play by Ollie North, and, while well-acquainted, does not have higher backing. Ollie assures me that he will pass word to Rodriguez to get in touch with me before he goes any further."

Gorman said he would "arrange to have Rodriguez come to Southcom for discussions" and "we can then decide whether it will also be useful for him to inspect {deleted} operations. Possibly we all might learn something from him." This was apparently a reference to the Rodriguez tactic for using helicopter raids against the insurgents in El Salvador.

Gorman said North "assures me that his intent was to focus Rodriguez on forces operating elsewhere in Centam." Gorman said "nothing more than consulting" was contemplated in El Salvador.

Gorman noted that he was concerned about the pending transfer of specialized counterinsurgency patrols trained and led by the CIA in EL Salvador to the U.S. military. Although key words in the document have been deleted, Gorman apparently told North that "we really had enough advice" on fighting the insurgency in El Salvador "at the moment."

North said "Rodriguez can be much more useful in other places, where aid and advice is much scarcer," Gorman wrote.

Rodriguez then met with Gorman, who described the meeting in a Feb. 14, 1985, cable to Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering in El Savador and Col. James Steele, head of the U.S. military operation in El Salvador. A censored version of the cable was released at the end of the Iran-contra hearings as an exhibit to the testimony of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.

In it, Gorman said that Rodriguez "is operating as a private citizen, but his acquaintanceship with the VP is real enough, going back to the latter's days as DCI." Bush served as director of central intelligence in 1976. This may have been a mistake by Gorman. A Bush aide said the vice president did not know Rodriguez until later.

Gorman reported to the others that "Rodriguez's primary commitment to the region is in {deleted} where he wants to assist the FDN. I told him that the FDN deserved his priority." FDN referred to the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, then the main military arm of the contras.

Gorman went on to say he had also talked to Rodriguez about activities in El Salvador, including efforts to train and lead Salvadoran troops for counterinsurgency patrols. Gorman said he warned Rodriguez that "whatever his consulting role in El Sal amounted to, he could not become visible to the press in any sense without damaging our cause there."

Gorman wrote that Rodriguez "will want to fly with the ESAF {El Salvador Air Force} to establish his credibility, but that bit of machismo seems to be both unnecessary and unwise."

Gorman said he believed Rodriguez should be allowed to consult with high-ranking Salvadoran military officials as long as "we know what he is telling" them. Gorman then sent Rodriguez to El Salvador to meet with Pickering.

In a recent telephone interview, Gorman said he was opposed at the time to Rodriguez helping the Salvadoran military. Gorman said a role for Rodriguez in El Salvador "was not in the cards, was not anything we ought to tolerate."

"I did not want him in El Salvador," Gorman said, but noted that he retired soon thereafter.

Gorman said he had known Rodriguez and described him as "totally committed to contesting Fidel" Castro by helping the Nicaraguan rebels. Rodriguez expressed similar views in congressional testimony.

Despite Gorman's reservations, Pickering apparently accepted the Rodriguez tactic for using helicopter raids in El Salvador. In another document released in heavily censored form by the Iran-contra committees, Pickering told Gorman and State Department officials that "Rodriguez understands my general rules -- no civilian casualties and he is not to accompany FAS {the Salvadoran Air Force} on combat missions and agrees. We will start slowly and carefully to see what approach can produce."

Pickering then wrote, "He will take on higher priority {deleted} mission first." It is not known to what the deleted material refers. Pickering asked that Gregg be briefed by State Department officials.

Rodriguez testified that he initially had difficulty with his helicopter raids in El Salvador but eventually was accepted after he was able to capture a guerrilla commandant alive. He said he flew over 100 missions, his helicopter was hit 15 times and he crashed once.

However, handwritten notes by North four days after the Rodriguez meeting with Pickering suggest that North had other plans for Rodriguez. North noted on Feb. 19 that he had a discussion with Gorman, and that Gorman wanted to get Rodriguez away from the counterinsurgency effort in El Salvador.

"FR told his priority should be FDN," North wrote.Staff researcher Michelle Hall contributed to this report.