Key members of Congress strongly criticized the State Department yesterday for failing to take adequate precautionary measures to protect U.S. citizens now trapped in Kuwait or held hostage in Iraq.

At a hearing before two House panels, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Elizabeth Tamposi was pressed to explain why the State Department did not advise Americans to leave Kuwait in the days immediately before Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion.

"We didn't issue any warnings to Americans to get out. We didn't help them to get out. We did zero," Rep. Larry Smith (D-Fla.) said.

"There has been a pattern of misjudging one event after another over a whole decade with regard to Iraq," added Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), who asked Tamposi why Americans were not urged to leave Kuwait when Iraqi troops were massing on the border and U.S. intelligence was warning of the possibility of invasion.

Visibly shaken by the criticism from members of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittees on international operations and Europe and the Middle East, Tamposi noted that the "prevailing consensus" at the time was that Iraq would not invade Kuwait.

"I know our response has not been perfect. . . . But no problem was a result of our not trying," she testified. "My sense is we are miles ahead of where we were . . . "

The crisis management system was overhauled in the wake of criticism of the State Department's failure to warn Americans of the terrorist threat that preceded the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, two years ago.

However, Rep. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said testimony by several Americans who escaped from Iraq suggested that the "crisis management system is still not working well."