The late CIA Director William J. Casey expressed preliminary interest in an apparent offer by South Africa in early 1984 to help the Nicaraguan contras, but the idea was dropped, CIA official Dewey R. Clarridge told a closed session of the congressional Iran-contra panels Aug. 4.

Clarridge's testimony before the committees was released yesterday with the name of the country deleted, but sources confirmed news agencies' reports that it was South Africa.

Clarridge, a Casey protege, traveled to South Africa in April 1984, but he told the committees that "a decision had been taken before I went . . . that we would neither ask for any assistance nor would we accept any."

Several committee members expressed skepticism about that. A CIA cable to Clarridge introduced by the committees suggested that a reason for dropping the plan was the public controversy in the United States over the CIA's mining of Nicaraguan harbors, which put a spotlight on the covert operations in support of the contras.

"Current furor here over the Nicaraguan project urges that we postpone taking {deleted} up on their offer of assistance. Please express my deep regret to {deleted} that we must do this," the cable stated.

Clarridge testified that he had no substantive discussions with the South Africans on the subject. He said the main reason was that the unidentified contacts had made it clear that they wanted to be paid to train and equip the rebels, who had no funds at that time. He also maintained that the South Africans were proposing to aid neighboring Central American governments rather than the contras themselves.

House Counsel Neil W. Eggleston repeatedly expressed skepticism that the option to solicit help from South Africa, which resulted in heavy cable traffic between the Central Intelligence Agency and Clarridge, had been shut down for those reasons.

Clarridge was one of three senior CIA officials called as witnesses after televised public hearings ended Aug. 3, as part of a concerted effort by the panels to assess the extent to which the agency may have been a party to abuses uncovered in the Iran-contra affair. One question is the extent to which top officials knew of controversial or even illegal activities, and to what degree Casey worked mainly through the National Security Council staff in an effort to insulate the CIA from criticism.

Partly declassified testimony of Deputy Director for Operations Clair George and Central American Task Force Chief Alan D. Fiers are expected to be released in a few days.

Clarridge, whom Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) called Casey's "man of the hour," worked closely with Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, then a White House aide and another Casey favorite, on key interagency groups involved with operations in Central America and with the effort to strengthen the U.S. response to terrorism.

During a full day before the House and Senate Iran-contra panels, his testimony appeared to frustrate a number of committee members.

"I was going from points of laughter to points of despair as I read over {your} deposition," Cohen, a Senate panel member, told him at one point. "On practically every single major event that we have been considering, you have virtually no memory at all and whenever a question is directed at you, you indicate, 'Well, it may be; I just can't recall.' "

Clarridge testified repeatedly that he was unaware in November 1985 that he was helping Israel deliver a shipment of U.S. Hawk antiaircraft missiles to Iran, even though he worked on the project steadily for some 48 hours, according to a partially declassified transcript released yesterday.

Clarridge said he accepted a "cover story" given to him by North that the cargo was oil drilling equipment.

Eggleston said, however, that investigators have obtained sworn testimony from a CIA communications specialist who recalls seeing a cable dealing with "Hawk missiles and Iran" in this period. Eggleston said the communicator, who had a friend who had been a hostage in Iran, remembers being "outraged that this kind of operation would be going forward."

The committees reported previously that two cables from a CIA officer in Portugal, both addressed to Clarridge's "eyes only" channel, and one specifically mentioning arms, were missing from agency files. Eggleston told the closed session Aug. 4 that both cables are still "simply missing."

At North's request, Clarridge took charge of the effort to get the "oil drilling parts" transported from Israel to Iran, beginning Nov. 22, 1985.

Clarridge directed the CIA station in Portugal to seek landing clearance there for an Israeli plane en route to Iran with 18 Hawks aboard. When that failed, Clarridge arranged for the missiles to be shipped from Tel Aviv on a CIA-owned airline.

The operation has become a major focus of the Iran-contra investigation because the CIA had no presidential authorization for it at the time, as required by law. President Reagan's after-the-fact authorization, signed Dec. 5, 1985, called for the information to be withheld from Congress and labeled the operation an "arms-for-hostages" deal, which ran counter to official administration policy.

Also, after the U.S.-Iran dealings were exposed last November, Casey gave the cover story to the congressional committees, and it was incorporated into a White House "chronology."

A Nov. 25, 1985, entry in North's notebook records a "call from Dewey" and then, "cargo must be listed as machine parts -- spares for oil industry."

When questioned about this and other entries, Clarridge said he was unable to recall the conversation, or suggested that the entries referred to what North was telling him.

On Nov. 26, Deputy CIA Director John McMahon learned from the pilot of the CIA proprietary airline that military equipment was aboard, and demanded that a presidential finding be drafted to cover the operation.

However, Clarridge insisted in a cable sent Nov. 25 that the equipment is "indeed spare parts."

Clarridge said that, as early as Nov. 26, he may have been told by CIA official Charles Allen that weapons had been on board, but added that he could not be certain.

"When do you, sir, first have it in your head through a recollection of your own that you knew that there was something other than oil drilling equipment on this flight?" Eggleston asked.

"When I remember being told officially that there were Hawk missiles on board was some time in January {1986}," he said.

During the attempt on Nov. 22 and 23 to obtain Portuguese landing clearance for an Israeli cargo plane, Clarridge ordered the station in Lisbon to "pull out all stops."

"It never occurred to you that the reason they {the Portuguese} were objecting to the landing of this otherwise perfectly ordinary cargo flight was because there was something about the nature of the cargo that was causing the problem?" asked Eggleston.

"I cannot recall sitting down trying to figure out why {the Portuguese} wouldn't let the cargo in. All I was trying to do was get the goddamned cargo in," he replied.

Clarridge's revelations about his trip to South Africa in April 1984 came only after he was confronted with cables obtained by committee investigators.

In an earlier sworn deposition to the committees, he had answered "no" when asked if he was aware of any discussions in the agency about soliciting aid for the contras from third countries, or whether he could say if there were discussions in the CIA about that possibility.

"Mr. Clarridge, if you were asked those questions today, would you answer them differently?" asked Eggleston.

"Yes, I would, based on the review of the cable traffic . . . ," he replied. "My reading of that is that at least the agency thought something was being offered."

This, he said, was evidently the impression that Casey had after meetings with South African contacts in January, 1984. On March 27, Casey wrote a memo to former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane referring to the possibility of obtaining assistance for the contras from South Africa.

However, Clarridge repeatedly attempted to show that his original answers in the deposition were essentially correct, and that he had never been approached directly about soliciting the South Africans.

"Before I even made my trip, a decision was taken that we would not ask or, if offered, would not accept assistance from {deleted} for the Nicaraguan democratic resistance," Clarridge insisted.

On another subject, Clarridge maintained, as he has in the past, that he had no knowledge of U.S. covert aid to the contras during the 1984 to 1986 period, when such assistance was banned by Congress.

Under questioning by Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), Clarridge said he could shed no light on a Nov. 10, 1984, entry in North's notebook under "call from Clarridge" that said, "keep mouth shut," "never mention North," and "heavy buys raising questions."

A Jan. 5, 1985, entry in North's notebook under the heading "Call from Clarridge" says, "200T of arms en route to {deleted} from {deleted}." It also states "offloading 70 t/night." This was in the most restrictive period of the Boland Amendment, when all U.S. military and intelligence assistance to the contras was barred.

Clarridge said he did not recall the phone call.Staff writer Charles R. Babcock and staff researcher Michelle Hall contributed to this report.