Vice President Bush watched the secret arms sales to Iran unfold step by step and was more informed of details than he has acknowledged because of his regular attendance at President Reagan's morning national security briefings and other meetings, according to his statements to the Tower commission, other Iran-contra documents and interviews with former administration officials.

One participant in the daily 1986 Oval Office national security briefings estimated that Bush attended several dozen such briefings that touched on the Iran initiative. Records of the briefings show specifically that on at least six occasions Bush attended the meetings from May to October 1986 when the National Security Council's executive secretary made notes of a discussion of Iran and the Americans held hostage in Lebanon.

Bush, who has said he might have had a different view of the secret arms-for-hostages deal if he had known about the opposition of Secretary of State George P. Shultz and then-Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger, "knew basically as much as the president" on national security matters, including the Iran initiative, said this regular participant in the morning national security briefings who declined to be identified by name but described himself as a Bush admirer.

The participant, who attended most of the meetings in 1986, said, "Iran came up about a third of the time in these meetings . . . next to U.S.-Soviet relations it was the most frequent topic." Records from Bush's office show that the vice president was out of town on 113 working days in 1986 and therefore could only have attended about half of the morning Oval Office meetings, though a Bush aide said yesterday it is possible that Bush was present for as many as three dozen briefings when Iran and the hostages were discussed.

According to one participant in the morning meetings, the vice president "never voiced reservations. He was not pro. He was not con." When the vice president spoke, the participant said, "Bush kind of echoed the president."

Bush's Dec. 18, 1986, interview with the Tower commission tends to support the view that he knew more about the secret arms deal than he has stated. According to the commission's 11 pages of typed notes from the vice president's interview that are still classified top secret, Bush "did have a general knowledge of the arms sales to Iran as a result of attendance at various briefings on the hostages and the so-called 9 a.m. meeting with the president."

The notes, which provide the earliest and perhaps fullest account so far of Bush's understanding of the Iran-contra scandal, show that the vice president also told the Tower commission that Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North's "judgments were never checked. Mr. Bush stated that the president and he must accept responsibility for this failure."

At one point the vice president spoke of the informality of the decision-making in the Iranian arms deal and of the fact that the operation violated normal procedures. He characterized it as "more up and down with the hostage problem blended in."

{During a campaign stop in Des Moines yesterday, Bush said he expects to answer Iran-contra investigators' questions but added that neither he nor Reagan is a target of the probe, Associated Press reported.

{"I will answer any question put to me by the special prosecutor," the Associated Press quoted Bush as saying. "It has been made clear to me I am not a target of any investigation, nor is the president."

{Although he said he is willing to release publicly any records he has about his involvement in the Iran-contra affair, United Press International quoted Bush as saying, "I am not going to discuss now what I haven't done for seven years now, and that is, what I tell the president."

{Craig L. Fuller, Bush's chief of staff, told the Associated Press, "The vice president has been absolutely truthful in all he said throughout this period."}

In public statements over the last 14 months, Bush has attempted to distance himself from firsthand knowledge of the initiative. In his recent autobiography, "Looking Forward," Bush said, "What I knew was that, working through the Israelis, an effort had been made to 'reach out' to one of the Iranian factions, that there had been a weapons sale, and that in some way the hostage issue had become part of the project."

He also said that "my first real chance to see the picture as a whole" didn't come until a month after the secret dealings with Iran were publicly exposed. He said that came from a meeting with the then-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Sen. David F. Durenberger (R-Minn.), who was investigating the matter. That meeting took place on Saturday morning, Dec. 20, 1986, at Bush's home -- two days after Bush had been interviewed by the Tower commission.

In his book, Bush wrote that after his meeting with Durenberger, he was "left with the feeling . . . that I'd been deliberately excluded from key meetings involving details of the Iran operation."

In his public statements, Bush has said that he privately expressed his "reservations" to the president about the affair, but he has declined to say what he told the president. On Tuesday, he told the National Press Club that former national security adviser John M. Poindexter had testifed about those reservations to the congressional Iran-contra committees.

That part of Poindexter's private testimony remains classified, but sources familiar with it said yesterday that Bush's reservations concerned the leverage Israel might gain over the United States through its participation in the secret operation, not the basic policy of selling arms to the Iranians.

The Tower commission's notes, which show Bush mentioning the Israeli role four times, were made available by someone who is not connected with any of Bush's Republican or Democratic rivals for the presidency. They were written during the Dec. 18, 1986, interview by commission general counsel W. Clark McFadden II and dated Dec. 29, 1986, the day they were typed.

"Now, according to the vice president, the Israelis themselves may be in some sense seeking cover," the notes said. Later Bush "stated that he remembered the Israeli connection with an opening to Iran very early on," an apparent reference to Israeli arms shipments to Iran in the early 1980s.

Still later in the hour-long meeting, the notes said, "The vice president reiterated that the Israeli arms activity with Iran long preceded this crisis. In the vice president's view, the Israelis were now attempting to cover their previous activity. Initially, the vice president had been concerned that the U.S. fate would be caught up in the Israeli activity; in his view, the Israeli activity may now be an advantage for the United States."

In 1985 Israel had shipped arms to Iran at the behest of the United States as the first part of the secret operation, according to the record of the Iran-contra affair.

Asked about the role of the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, Bush said "the fact that Mossad was giving us intelligence was not raised in the NSC {National Security Council} context, nor was it presented to the president or the vice president. The vice president stated that he did not know how Lt. Col. North may have interacted with Mossad."

Bush also told the board "that much activity regarding the Iranian policy was done on an informal basis and without records . . . . Nevertheless he noted that the president often 'holds things pretty tight.' Moreover, there was little mechanism for debriefing people on what happened about the Iranian operation."

The notes also show that "Bush emphasized that throughout this period one principle that was clearly applicable was to 'go the extra mile for the hostages.' At the same time the president also made it clear that no one should do anything wrong to accomplish their objective."

An aide to Bush said yesterday that the vice president has not attempted to conceal his role in the Iran initiative. "He was totally candid with the Tower board, and I suspect would not object to the release of the notes" of the meeting. He also said Bush feels "betrayed" by the White House system that handled the secret arms deal. He said the absence of a regular flow of memos made it difficult for Bush to keep track of everything that was going on.

Bush also was interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and has cooperated with independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, the aide said.

The extensive record of the Iran-contra investigations and supplemental interviews with participants show that, while Bush was not a decision-maker, he was in a position to see the operation firsthand from its inception in 1985 through its unraveling in late 1986.

In a television interview last month, however, Bush said, "Well, if I had a lot more knowledge of what was going on, I would have said, 'Don't do this.' "

As a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and chairman of the task force on combating terrorism, Bush was one member of the administration particularly qualified to assess the hazards of such an operation.

Former administration officials said in recent interviews that the major forum for informing the president about Iran was the 9 a.m. meeting with then-White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan and the 9:30 national security briefings. When Bush was in Washington, he attended both.

Some participants say Bush first attended a meeting on the Iran initiative on Aug. 6, 1985, with the president, then-national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane, Regan, Shultz and Weinberger. Bush and his staff, however, insist that the vice president did not attend, and other sources give this claim strong credence.

On Sept. 14, 1985, the Israelis shipped arms to Iran and the Rev. Benjamin Weir was released, the first American hostage freed as a result of the secret operation. Public announcement of the release was withheld for four days during which the matter was discussed at the president's morning briefings, according to sources close to McFarlane. Bush was present at the two morning national security briefings, these sources said.

The next significant meeting occurred Dec. 7, 1985. Bush missed the meeting because he was en route to the Army-Navy football game. Poindexter, in his closed testimony that was later released, said he had briefed the major administration national security figures prior to the meeting. "I can't recall whether I talked to the vice president or not. I probably did, but I just can't remember that," Poindexter testified.

On Jan. 6, 1986, Bush participated in a meeting when the president and Poindexter discussed a new intelligence order, or finding, to support the Iran arms sales. During this meeting, Reagan signed the finding, but both Reagan and Bush have said they don't recall this.

The next day Bush attended another key meeting with the president on Iran. Shultz told the Tower commission that he argued against the secret initiative. "I expressed myself as forcefully as I could. That is, I didn't just sort of rattle these arguments off. I was intense. The president knew that. The president was well aware of my views. I think everybody was well aware of my views."

Shultz added, "It was clear to me by the time we went out that the president, the vice president" and the others favored the planned secret operation while he and Weinberger opposed it.

In his autobiography, Bush wrote, "As it turned out, George Shultz and Cap Weinberger had serious doubts, too. If I'd known that and asked the president to call a meeting of the NSC, he might have seen the project in a different light, as a gamble doomed to fail."

In his Tower commission interview, Bush indicated that he was not fully aware of the objections of the two senior Cabinet officers. According to the notes, "The vice president allowed that he found it difficult to imagine that the president should go forward in the circumstances."

On Jan. 17, 1986, Bush attended the regular 9:30 a.m. national security briefing at which Poindexter provided the president with the intelligence finding that would approve the covert sale of arms to Iran. An accompanying memo stated that Shultz and Weinberger recommended against the plan. Sources said such memos normally were distributed by Poindexter to Bush and others present but would be picked up after the meeting ended.

Poindexter jotted the following note at the bottom of his copy: "President was briefed verbally from this paper. VP {Bush}, Don Regan" and then-deputy national security adviser Donald R. Fortier "were present."

An aide to Bush has said "Bush does not remember much" about this meeting or the finding.

Fortier presumably would have been the note-taker, but investigators have apparently not found or at least have not released any of his notes from meetings on Iran with the president or vice president. Fortier died of cancer in August 1986.

Bush also attended a series of morning briefings in May 1986 as the administration was secretly planning to send McFarlane to Tehran to deliver arms in exchange for all the American hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian groups.

On May 12, Bush attended the morning meeting with the president at which McFarlane's trip was discussed. On May 21, Bush also attended a meeting at which the president was told that the hostages might be released within a week. The notes taken by the NSC executive secretary Rodney McDaniel show someone saying, "stonewall/deny involvement," an apparent reference to the position the White House would take if the hostages were released.

The McFarlane mission failed because the Iranians would not release all the hostages, even after McFarlane made a partial delivery of arms.

Bush attended the May 29, 1986, Oval Office national security briefing when McFarlane presented a 10-minute summary of his mission. A memo on the conversation prepared by another NSC staffer, Howard Teicher, quoted McFarlane as saying, "I recommend no more meetings {with the Iranians} until the hostages are released." The president adopted this policy, according to former administration officials.

Bush's records show that on June 20, 1986, he attended the national security briefing. McDaniel's notes show that under the topic of the hostages, someone, probably the president, said, "No meeting until agree to release." That was administration policy.

On July 26, Father Lawrence M. Jenco, was freed. Then-CIA Director William J. Casey and aide North proposed a change in policy, urging that more arms should be shipped before the three remaining hostages were released, according to the record.

Bush was in Europe and the Middle East during this period. At the suggestion of North, he met on July 29, 1986, in Jerusalem for a 25-minute breakfast with Amiram Nir, the Israeli prime minister's special assistant for counterterrorism who was the contact for the Israeli logistical support to the U.S. operation.

During that session Nir said there was "no real choice" other than to change the policy and deliver arms in hopes of getting the hostages out one at a time, according to a memo prepared by Fuller, Bush's chief of staff.

The next day, Reagan approved the change in policy and spare parts for Hawk antiaircraft missiles were shipped to Iran. There is no record or testimony that the vice president played any role in this presidential decision.

After his return from the Middle East, Bush attended the morning briefing on Aug. 14, 1986, when Iran and the hostages were discussed, according to the notes of the meeting.

During September, Poindexter and North thought that they had established a new, more reliable channel with Iran that could win release of the American hostages. At the Oct. 3, 1986, national security briefing with Bush in attendance, Reagan inscribed a Bible that North later took to the Iranian intermediaries.

In early November 1986, the Iran operation became publicly known. Bush attended White House meetings throughout the month as the administration attempted to cope with the unfolding scandal. Notes of those meetings show that on Nov. 10 and Nov. 14 Bush asked about the Israeli role and said at one point, "Israel may try to squeeze us."

Bush also asked whether there were "further commitments," and Poindexter said no, the notes show.

At the Nov. 18, 1986, meeting, the notes show Bush asking, "Who attended what meeting," an apparent reference to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

On Nov. 20, 1986, North met with Fuller, according to notes typed by Fuller that day, sources said. In that meeting, North said that the new Iranian channel wanted to meet with someone in the administration at the vice president's level.

The next day Poindexter proposed that Bush be the emissary to the Middle East to explain the rationale for the arms sales. Bush never made the trip.

Staff writer David Hoffman and staff researcher Melissa Mathis contributed to this report.