WASHINGTON — President Reagan accepted Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter's resignation as his national security adviser Tuesday and dismissed Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, a Poindexter aide, after a Justice Department investigation disclosed that as much as $30 million in proceeds from arms sales to Iran had been diverted to Nicaraguan rebels despite a congressional ban on such military assistance.
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, who has been investigating the Iranian arms deal, said that North was the only government official with full knowledge of the diversion of funds to the contras fighting the Marxist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
Poindexter, Meese said, knew "that something of this nature was occurring" several months ago--when the congressional ban on U.S. assistance to the contras was still in place--but did not inform the President.
A government source also said it was North, acting in the face of a presidential decision to the contrary, who authorized the first shipment of U.S.-made arms from Israel to Iran in the late summer of 1985. That shipment was pivotal because it was followed by the release of American hostage Benjamin Weir and became the catalyst for the President's fateful decision the following January to begin supplying weapons to Iran.
"In August, 1985--despite the President's (previous) disapproval--an Israeli shipment of arms went to Iran," said the source. "Oliver North authorized the Israelis to do it and didn't tell Reagan."
That official, speaking on condition that he not be named, said it is not known whether North was acting on his own or at someone else's direction. Meese confirmed that Reagan did not learn until afterward about this shipment.
Meese said that Israel acted on its own in the arms shipment of late summer, 1985. "To my knowledge," he said, "nobody authorized that particular shipment specifically."
North's Office Sealed
Meanwhile, it was learned from government sources that federal officials sealed North's office Tuesday night--"nobody in or out," one said--changed the combination to his office lock and began carting away boxes filled with his records.
North could not be reached at his office Tuesday. Meese indicated he would resign his Marine Corps commission, but another official said it appeared appears likely that he would be reassigned to a low-level Marine post outside Washington.
At a White House briefing for reporters, Reagan said that, although Poindexter had not been "directly involved" in the diversion of funds to the contras, he had "asked to be relieved of his assignment . . . and to return to another assignment in the Navy." North, he said, "has been relieved of his duties on the National Security Council staff."
The President, seeking for the first time to distance himself from an operation that has seriously undermined his Administration's credibility, declared that he had not been "fully informed on the nature of one of the activities undertaken" by his National Security Council staff.
While insisting that the goals of his Iranian policy were "well-founded," Reagan said he was deeply troubled to learn that implementation of the policy was "seriously flawed" and raised "serious questions of propriety."
Grim-faced as he read a short prepared statement, Reagan said he would appoint a special review board to study the role and procedures of the White House National Security Council staff, which Poindexter headed, in the conduct of foreign affairs.
Poindexter's deputy, Alton G. Keel Jr., 43, will serve as acting national security adviser until Reagan names a replacement for Poindexter. Keel, a career public servant, joined the National Security Council staff in July.
Government sources said Reagan has chosen a successor to Poindexter and was ready to announce his choice today.
Among top candidates, one source said, are former Sen. John G. Tower (R-Tex.); Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr.; Ambassador to NATO David Abshire; Kenneth L. Adelman, director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard N. Perle, and Max Kampelman, chief U.S. negotiator at the Geneva arms control talks.
In a lengthy briefing after Reagan's brief appearance, Meese said that he is investigating whether anyone involved in the arms sale is subject to criminal prosecution.
In January of this year, Meese said, Reagan decided to authorize the shipment of U.S. arms to Iran in an effort to help stop the Iran-Iraq War and to secure the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by Muslim militants with ties to Iran.
"Three or four shipments" ultimately were made, all by way of Israel, Meese said, although Reagan had acknowledged only two shipments at his press conference last week. Meese said that some of the proceeds from at least one of the shipments and possibly as many as three of them were transferred to Swiss bank accounts for the use of the contras.