President Reagan and his staff made mistakes in the Iran-contra affair. It is important at the outset, however, to note that the president himself has already taken the hard step of acknowledging his mistakes and reacting precisely to correct what went wrong . . . .

The bottom line, however, is that the mistakes of the Iran-contra affair were just that -- mistakes in judgment and nothing more. There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for the "rule of law," no grand conspiracy, and no administration-wide dishonesty or cover-up. In fact, the evidence will not support any of the more hysterical conclusions the committees' report tries to reach.

No one in the government was acting out of corrupt motives. To understand what they did, it is important to understand the context within which they acted. The decisions we have been investigating grew out of:Efforts to pursue important U.S. interests both for the fate of American citizens held hostage in Lebanon by terrorists, including one CIA station chief who was killed as a result of torture. A legitimate frustration with abuses of power and irresolution by the legislative branch, and An equally legitimate frustration with leaks of sensitive national security secrets coming out of both Congress and the executive branch.

Understanding this context can help explain and mitigate the resulting mistakes. It does not explain them away, or excuse their having happened.Committees' Report and Ongoing Battle

The excesses of the committees' report are reflections of something far more profound. Deeper than the specifics of the Iran-contra affair lies an underlying and festering institutional wound these committees have been unwilling to face. In order to support rhetorical overstatements about democracy and the rule of law, the committees have rested their case upon an aggrandizing theory of Congress' foreign policy powers that is itself part of the problem. Rather than seeking to heal, the committee's hearings and report betray an attitude that we fear will make matters worse . . . .

A substantial number of the mistakes of the Iran-contra affair resulted directly from an ongoing state of political guerrilla warfare over foreign policy between the legislative and executive branches. We would include in this category the excessive secrecy of the Iran initiative that resulted from a history and legitimate fear of leaks. We also would include the approach both branches took toward the so-called Boland Amendments. Congressional Democrats tried to use vaguely worded and constantly changing laws to impose policies in Central America that went well beyond the law itself. For its own part, the administration decided to work within the letter of the law covertly, instead of forcing a public and principled confrontation that would have been healthier in the long run . . . . Why We Reject the Committees' Report

Sadly, the committees' report reads as if it were a weapon in the ongoing guerrilla warfare, instead of an objective analysis. Evidence is used selectively, and unsupported inferences are drawn to support politically biased interpretations . . . .

We always knew, of course, that there would be differences of interpretation. We had hoped at the state of this process, however, to arrive at a mutually agreeable statement of facts. Unfortunately, that was not to be. The narrative is not a fair description of events, but an advocate's legal brief that arrays and selects so-called "facts" to fit preconceived theories. Some of the resulting narrative is accurate and supported by the evidence. A great deal is overdrawn, speculative, and built on a selective use of the committees' documentary materials . . . .

Our reasons for rejecting the committees' report can best be understood by sampling a few of its major conclusions. By presenting these examples, we hope to alert conscientious readers -- whether they agree with our interpretations or not -- to take the narrative with a very large grain of salt . . . . President's Knowledge of the Diversion

The most politically charged example of the committees' misuse of evidence is in the way it presents the president's lack of knowledge about the "diversion" -- that is, the decision by the former national security adviser, {Rear} Adm. John Poindexter, to authorize the use of some proceeds from Iran arms sales to support the Nicaraguan democratic resistance, or contras. This is the one case out of thousands in which the committees -- instead of going beyond the evidence as the report usually does -- refused instead to accept the overwhelming evidence with which it was presented. The report does grudgingly acknowledge that it cannot refute the president's repeated assertion that he knew nothing about the diversion before Attorney General Edwin Meese discovered it in November 1986. Instead of moving forward from this to more meaningful policy questions, however, the report seeks, without any support, to plant doubts . . . .

The evidence shows that the president did not know about the diversion. As we discuss at length in our chapter on the subject, this evidence includes a great deal more than just Poindexter's testimony. Poindexter was corroborated in different ways by the president's own diaries and by testimony from {Lt. Col. Oliver L.} North, Meese, Cmdr. Paul Thompson (formerly the NSC's general counsel), and former White House chief of staff Donald Regan. The conclusion that the president did not know about the diversion, in other words, is one of the strongest of all the inferences one can make from the evidence before these committees . . . . The Allegation of Systematic Cover-Up

The report also tries to present the events of November 1986 as if they represent a systematic attempt by the administration to cover up the facts of the Iran initiative. The reason for the alleged cover-up, it is suggested, was to keep the American people from learning that the 1985 arms sales were "illegal."

There can be no question that the administration was reluctant to make all of the facts public in early November, when news of the arms sales first came out in a Lebanese weekly. It is clear from the evidence that this was a time when covert diplomatic discussions were still being conducted with Iran, and there was some basis for thinking more hostages might be released. We consider the administration's reticence in the early part of the month to have been completely justifiable.

However, as November 1986 wore on, Poindexter and North did falsify the documentary record in a way that we find deplorable. The outstanding fact about the late November events, however, is that Attorney General Meese understood the importance of getting at the truth. Working on a very tight schedule, Meese and three others from the Department of Justice managed to uncover the so-called "diversion memorandum" and reported it to the president. The president immediately removed Poindexter and North from the NSC staff. Shortly afterwards, he asked for an independent counsel to be appointed, appointed the Tower board, and supported the establishment of select congressional investigative committees, to which he has given unprecedented cooperation . . . . The 'Rule of Law'

Finally, the committees' report tries -- almost as an overarching thesis -- to portray the administration as if it were behaving with wanton disregard for the law. In our view, every single one of the committees' legal interpretations is open to serious question. On some issues -- particularly the ones involving the statutes governing covert operations -- we believe the law to be clearly on the administration's side. In every other case, the issue is at least debatable. In some, such as the Boland Amendment, we are convinced we have by far the better argument. In a few others -- such as who owns the funds the Iranians paid {retired} Gen. Richard Secord and Albert Hakim -- we see the legal issue as being close . . . . Common Threads

The discussion of personnel ultimately gets around to the importance of political judgment. We can be more precise about what that means, however, if we consider the common threads in the decisions we have already labeled as mistakes. These have included:The president's decision to sign the Boland Amendment of 1984, instead of vetoing it. The president's less-than-robust defense of his office's constitutional powers, a mistake he repeated when he acceded too readily and too completely to waive executive privilege for our committees' investigation. The NSC staff's decision to deceive Congress about what it was doing in Central America. The decision, in Iran, to pursue a covert policy that was at odds with the administration's public expressions, without any warning signals to Congress or our allies. The decision to use a necessary and constitutionally protected power of withholding information from Congress for unusually sensitive covert operations, for a length of time that stretches credulity. Poindexter's decision to authorize the diversion on his own; and, finally, Poindexter and North's apparent belief that covering up was in the president's political interest.

We emphatically reject the idea that through these mistakes, the executive branch subverted the law, undermined the Constitution, or threatened democracy.