WASHINGTON — President Reagan's advisers, striving to restore his credibility in the face of continuing public and congressional skepticism, have been locked in a sharp debate over whether Reagan should admit publicly that he made a mistake in authorizing secret negotiations with Iran over arms and hostages.
And two knowledgeable sources said Thursday that the President, who Wednesday night defended his Iran decision as correct, may yet decide to admit he erred. Reagan felt "very, very strongly" about not acknowledging he had made a mistake and is "not in a mood or mind to apologize for anything, no matter what anybody says to him," according to a Republican congressional leader who declined to be identified.
However, this source said, "I've heard Presidents say 'never' before and sooner or later have to reconsider. I think Reagan will reconsider and admit he made a mistake because he's got to find some way to put this behind him. He has to, because it's distracting from other issues and will be used by congressional Democrats to justify further restrictions on presidential authority."
And a senior presidential aide suggested that such a Reagan admission could come during the President's regular weekly radio broadcast to the nation Saturday morning. "I realize now he should have admitted making a mistake at his press conference last (Wednesday) night," he said.
The dispute over whether Reagan should admit error reflects continuing disarray and uncertainty inside the White House about how to deal with a controversy that has begun to cast threatening shadows over the remainder of Reagan's term.
Congress, which has complained of being frozen out of Administration decisions over the arms shipments, will hold its first hearings today when the Senate and House intelligence committees hear separately from CIA Director William J. Casey. In addition, the Senate committee's leaders will meet informally with John M. Poindexter, Reagan's national security adviser, who as a White House aide has resisted presenting formal congressional testimony.
Revelations that the Administration violated its embargo on supplying weapons to Iran and contravened its public policy against negotiating with terrorists have brought the most relentless criticism Reagan has encountered in the six years of his Presidency--from congressional Republicans and Democrats alike.
The episode has also sown dismay among allies who had been under ceaseless U.S. pressure not to ship arms to Iran or deal with terrorists.
And, despite a full-scale media blitz by White House aides and two nationally televised appearances by Reagan himself, opinion polls indicate that Americans remain overwhelmingly skeptical not only of the President's explanations but of his policy.
As a result, White House officials and others involved in the operation are now struggling to extricate themselves from the politically damaging controversy.
On the eve of the President's press conference Wednesday night, several aides recommended that he use the occasion to acknowledge making an error. But White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan rejected this strategy as "not the thing to do," and the President told a nationwide television audience that he takes full responsibility for the operation and remains convinced that "it was a correct decision.'
"We discussed having the President admit he'd made a mistake and went back and forth on it. Some felt strongly about it and held out to the end, but Don Regan said it was not the thing to do," a senior Reagan aide said.
Looking to Holiday Week
Reagan's advisers also discussed whether they might be able to deflect the public's attention from the Iranian operation by focusing on another issue. Although they finally decided that such a strategy would not work, they are hopeful that the pressure on Reagan might ease during the coming holiday week.
"We talked about changing the agenda," said one adviser. "But to what? Budget control won't do it. Productivity won't do it. The best thing is there's going to be a turkey next week--it's called Thanksgiving."
Some of Reagan's advisers have expressed concern that he squandered not only his credibility but his moral authority by saying that he broke no law in defending the secretive Iranian project. They had hoped that at his press conference he would merely say he was advised he could legally authorize the operation without notifying Congress.
Reagan went further. He said he was "breaking no law" and spoke of his "right under the law" to withhold information from Congress.
Meese Advised President
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III had advised Reagan that legally he did not need to inform Congress of the covert operation until after it was over. But one Reagan adviser said it was a mistake for the President to declare that he had broken no law in handling the matter.