WASHINGTON — Democratic leaders in Congress, joined by some Republicans, were sharply critical Thursday of President Reagan's explanation of the Administration's secret negotiations with Iran, taking issue most strongly with his decision not to consult with Congress before acting.
The secret operation, which Reagan said was designed to cultivate relations with the strategically important nation while also winning the release of American hostages in Lebanon, was a "major foreign relations blunder," said Senate Democratic Leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. "We've done ourselves a great deal of damage. How do we undo this damage?" he asked.
Republican Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Reagan's remarks were "at best confusing" and added: "The President has yet to learn that he will gain both support and good advice by broadening the circle he consults with on important foreign policy initiatives."
Reagan asserted that utmost secrecy was needed to protect all parties in the negotiations, which provided for limited arms shipments to Iran, but several lawmakers said that the presidential assurances will not repair the breach in trust the affair has caused.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, predicted that Congress will introduce legislation to require more consultation and congressional oversight of foreign policy operations.
"The White House has been more willing to trust some of the factions in Iran than they have the Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate," he complained.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) told the Associated Press: "The President made a judgment that the security of the hostages, the security of the new relations that we were fashioning with Iran, justified a very close circle, and there it was kept. I think this is debatable."
The criticism was not unanimous, however. Rep. Richard Cheney (R-Wyo.), a member of the House Republican leadership, said that he believes Reagan provided a convincing explanation of his motives and actions.
The "heart of the matter" was Reagan's attempt to improve the long-range security interests of the United States, not whether he should have consulted with the congressional leadership, Cheney said.
Leahy, however, said that Reagan, by his insistence on excluding Congress from the planning, now must take sole responsibility for the fact that all American hostages have not been freed and that the nation's stated policy against dealing with terrorists is in disarray.
"I think the White House has got to understand that if they want to conduct . . . very, very high-risk diplomacy with very little guarantee of ultimate success, they're going to have to form a bipartisan coalition behind them before they do it."
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said that Reagan provided no adequate justification for sending military equipment to a nation with Iran's record on terrorism.
"They took our diplomats hostage and used them to humiliate this country. To send them arms adds to that humiliation. It encourages further blackmail," he told the AP.
O'Neill said he had advised Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to "go forward with a complete investigation" and to use subpoenas if necessary. He said those hearings could begin as early as Nov. 24.
House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said that if such hearings determine that the Administration acted improperly in pursuing U.S. foreign policy interests, measures to prevent future mistakes will be sought.