WASHINGTON — The White House, under increasing pressure to explain President Reagan's controversial arms-for-hostages dealings with Iran, Wednesday briefed congressional leaders for two hours behind closed doors, but it failed to quell criticism that the secret operation was ill-advised and raised serious questions about the credibility of U.S. foreign policy.
Emerging from the hurriedly called White House session, Senate Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd, previously one of the most vocal critics of the mission, said, "Well, my mind was not changed by this briefing."
Later, in a prepared statement commenting on the briefing, the West Virginia senator said, "Questions were answered, but that did not change my thinking or my impressions from what I have seen and read in the media."
Dole Still Unhappy
And Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) was described by informed sources as still unhappy about the arms shipments and dissatisfied with the Administration's explanation of its policy.
The session with party leaders abruptly ended a week of stolid refusal by Administration officials to say anything about U.S. negotiations with Iran beyond a bare-bones denial that the White House has broken any law or damaged the national interest.
The theme struck at Wednesday's session, according to informed sources, was that the weapons pipeline to Iran was conceived not merely to free hostages, but to advance long-term U.S. policy in the Middle East by cultivating the few moderates in Iran's fractious government.
That argument, reflecting the tack that the Administration is expected to pursue when and if it explains the Iranian operation publicly, casts the weapons deal as an effort to keep Iran out of the orbit of its neighbor, the Soviet Union, instead of as a secret reversal of the United States' hard line against striking deals with terrorists.
It also has the political advantage of removing Reagan's personal approval of the shipments in 1985 and 1986 from what appears to have become an unspoken payment of ransom for kidnaped Americans.
"They will try to distance the United States as much as the facts allow from actual arms deliveries," one congressional source said. "They will say that there was no quid pro quo arms-for-hostages (deal), but that one of the fallouts of this was that some hostages were released."
Reagan Meets Buchanan
There were some indications Wednesday that the White House may go public soon with that explanation. Before the congressional briefing, Reagan had a lengthy luncheon session with Patrick J. Buchanan, the White House communications director, who directs media arrangements on major news developments. Buchanan has said that he will be involved in releasing any official statement on the Iranian overtures.
White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan also scheduled a Friday breakfast with Washington journalists, apparently to offer some official explanation of the Iranian operation.
However, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, described by White House officials as a longtime participant in the operation, said late Wednesday that no detailed explanation of the U.S. operation is likely to be made public soon.
"I don't think we're going to be able to say anything for some time," he said at a Washington reception for Secretary of State George P. Shultz. "Our interest in the hostages is one of several interests involved here."
He refused to be specific but appeared to be referring to the Administration's reported desire to avoid embarrassing moderate Iranian leaders with further reports of their contacts with American officials.
Meese added that there is still "some hope" that more U.S. hostages will be released by Lebanese kidnapers, and he dismissed as "speculative" a New York Times report that those hopes will vanish if a release is not negotiated within a week.
Breaks His Silence
National security adviser John M. Poindexter, arriving for a dinner in the Capitol building Wednesday evening, broke his silence on the Iranian issue to tell reporters that he had no second thoughts about what had taken place and that U.S. policies will continue unchanged.
When told that Byrd said the White House briefing had not changed his mind, Poindexter replied: "There are a lot of subjective judgments involved. Different people have different opinions."
Nevertheless, both Byrd and Dole were said Wednesday to believe that the Administration blundered by not informing Congress and the State Department about the clandestine operation from the beginning.
Byrd Expresses Shock
After reading a Los Angeles Times account of the Iranian operation last Thursday, Byrd expressed shock that the Administration would undertake such a mission in the face of its announced policy of refusing to deal with terrorists and opposing arms shipments to countries, such as Iran, that support terrorism. At that time, he said the Senate, once it is reorganized under a Democratic majority next January, will conduct hearings on the operation.