President Reagan's National Security Council was paying for secret polls to track public opinion about U.S. arms sales to Iran, even as it was negotiating those sales.

Sources at the Washington think tank that took the polls for the NSC in 1986 said that in retrospect, it is now clear that then-national security adviser John M. Poindexter and his aide, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, were looking for public support by shaping the questions asked in the polls. The numbers show they didn't get that support, but they forged ahead anyway.

The pollsters, who asked not to be identified, say they had no idea when they were taking the polls what the administration was up to.

From March 8 to 11, 1986, the private group conducted a 50-question poll for the NSC among 1,500 Americans. Some of the questions focused on terrorism. The poll was one of several the NSC used that year as a novel way to help it shape foreign policy.

Poindexter and North couldn't have been happy with the March poll. It showed that 66 percent of Americans favored a military strike against terrorists. When asked specifically about taking military action against five countries, Iran barely edged out Libya on the venom scale. Seventy-eight percent favored military action against specific targets in Iran.

Poindexter and North didn't have to be geniuses to figure out that Americans would not be thrilled with an arms deal with Iran.

If that poll didn't get the message across, the NSC-crafted poll for September should have. The poll asked what Americans thought their government should do to win the release of three Americans then held hostage in Lebanon. Four percent said there was nothing we could do. Twenty-two percent favored bowing to the demands of the Iranian-backed terrorists to swap some their colleagues jailed in Kuwait for the hostages. Twenty-six percent wanted to send in a rescue force. One percent had no opinion.

The biggest share, 47 percent, suggested working quietly behind the scenes without making any major concessions. Unfortunately for North and Poindexter, trading arms for hostages would undoubtedly be seen as a major concession.

In November, the pollsters did their final work for the NSC. The arms deal had been exposed, but not the diversion of the profits to the Nicaraguan contras. The November poll asked Americans how they felt about the news. A majority, 58 percent, said President Reagan did the right thing in reopening talks with Iran, but 76 percent felt it was wrong to send arms. The "exchange commodity" the administraion chose was simply not the one the American public would have chosen.

The pollsters also concluded that the American public didn't support secret deals with other countries, even for national security reasons. "While the public might accept some form of confidentiality from the public at large for a while, the fact that the Iranian contacts were kept secret from other agenices of the government and the legislative branch for so long was unacceptable to most Americans," the pollsters reported to the NSC.