Nearly 14 years after Robert H. Bork fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, Bork's actions during the "Saturday Night Massacre" and its aftermath, and his subsequent descriptions of his conduct, remain a controversy almost certain to be explored in more depth at his confirmation hearings.

Some members of an American Bar Association's screening committee, which last week in a split decision gave Bork its highest rating of "well qualified" for the Supreme Court, expressed concern that he had not been candid with the Senate Judiciary Committee about his role in Watergate during his 1982 confirmation hearings for the federal appeals court, according to sources.

Likewise, Judiciary Committee members have said they think that Bork's conduct during Watergate or his accounts of what happened will become an issue during his current confirmation hearings.

"A federal court found that his firing of Archibald Cox on President Nixon's order was was illegal . . . , " Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) said yesterday. "It is important to explore these matters -- for what message does it convey if the Senate confirms for the highest court of the land someone who has violated the law?"

Accompanying Bork to the hearing, Gerald R. Ford, who became president when Richard M. Nixon resigned because of the Watergate scandal, said Bork "acted with integrity to preserve the continuity of both the Justice Department and special prosecutor's investigation" when he fired Cox.

Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus resigned on Oct. 20, 1973, rather than fire Cox, whose independence they had promised to protect. Bork, who as solicitor general was the third-highest-ranking official at the Justice Department and who had not made a similar pledge to the Senate, then carried out Nixon's order.

Some of the questions surrounding the events of that Saturday night and Bork include:Did Bork accurately testify in 1982 that after firing Cox he guaranteed that Cox's staff would have "complete independence" and be free to go after the White House tapes that had been the cause of Cox's firing?

Bork in 1982 described a tense meeting during the confused period following Cox's firing. The meeting was with Cox's deputies, Henry S. Ruth Jr. and Philip A. Lacovara, and Henry E. Petersen, head of the Justice Department's criminal division.

". . . I told them that I wanted them to continue as before with their investigations and with their prosecutions, that they would have complete independence and that I would guard that independence, including their right to go to court to get the White House tapes or any other evidence they wanted," Bork said.

Lacovara and Ruth say Bork instructed them to continue with their investigation under Petersen's direction. Before Cox's appointment, Petersen had been criticized for not pursuing the Watergate investigation aggressively.

"We were instructed to proceed and report to Henry Petersen," said Ruth, whose recollection of that meeting differs from Bork's and who may testify.

At the meeting, said Lacovara, "I spent a fair amount of time explaining to Bob Bork why I thought it was critically important that there be a special prosecutor who was autonomous and not a part of the regular Justice Department hierarchy." He noted that a number of current or former Justice Department and White House officials were being investigated.

Lacovara said he does not find Bork's 1982 testimony troubling and that Bork seemed receptive to this argument.

Although Bork testified that he assured Ruth and Lacovara that they would be able to seek the tapes, both said they did not recall the tapes being discussed at that meeting, which took place on the Sunday or Monday following the firing. (Cox had been fired after a court ordered Nixon to turn over tapes he had subpoenaed.)

On the "ultimate question of would Nixon turn over the tapes and would we be able to subpoena future tapes, that was all left open . . . , " Ruth said.

"What was going to happen when the White House said 'no' the next time?" Ruth asked. "Archie Cox had just been fired for going to court for the tapes . . . . Why is it different Monday than Saturday? We never got to that at the meeting."

Ruth and other lawyers in the office said Bork could not have guaranteed their right to seek the tapes because Nixon did not decide until Tuesday to comply with the court's order.

Lacovara's recollection of the meeting is in line with Bork's account. "Both of them {Bork and Petersen} left me and, I think, Hank, with the impression that if we could explain to them why evidence wherever it might lie was important to the truth-finding process, they would pursue the evidence or they would themselves go the way of Richardson," he said.

"The impression that I took out of that meeting was yes, our independence was going to be protected, as long as he and Petersen had any role in the matter . . . , " Lacovara said. "I was there. I do not regard his testimony as betraying a lack of credibility or candor or honor."

During yesterday's hearing, Bork referred to the conflicting accounts of the meeting in response to a question from Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). "As I understand the difference in recollection, it is whether or not tapes were specifically mentioned at that meeting," he said. "It was my recollection they were; the others say not.

"But I think there is a common recollection . . . that I said they were to go forward as before and that if we were interfered with, we would all resign. That seems to me to include tapes, whether or not they were specifically mentioned, as I thought they had been."

Did Bork take adequate measures to assure the investigation's independence by seeking appointment of a new prosecutor?

"There was never any possibility that that discharge of the special prosecutor would in any way hamper the investigation or the prosecutions of the special prosecutor's office," Bork testified in 1982.

A White House briefing book prepared as part of Bork's confirmation battle states that, "Immediately after carrying out the president's instruction to discharge Cox, Bork acted to safeguard the Watergate investigation and its independence. He promptly established a new special prosecutor's office, giving it authority to pursue the investgiation without interference."

However, Bork on the first working day after the firing, Tuesday, issued an order, retroactive to Sunday, abolishing the office of the Watergate special prosecution.

Bork did not mention the possiblity of appointing a new special prosecutor during a meeting Tuesday with Cox's staff or in a news conference that week. It was not until Friday, after the White House had been deluged by telegrams and Congress was weighing impeachment measures and legislation to establish a special prosecutor under its control, that Nixon agreed to appoint a new special prosecutor. Did Bork violate a Justice Department regulation in firing Cox?

U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, ruling in a lawsuit seeking to have Cox reinstated, found that Bork's action violated a Justice Department regulation prohibiting Cox from being fired "except for extraordinary improprieties." The firing of Cox, abolition of the special prosecutor's office and reinstatement of the office three weeks later "was simply a ruse to permit the discharge of Mr. Cox," Gesell wrote.

He later vacated the order on the grounds that the issue was moot.

A Justice Department report released last Saturday assailed the Gesell ruling as "wholly without support in law."