WASHINGTON — Former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter, a low-key, bookish figure overshadowed in the Iran- contra scandal by the more flamboyant Oliver L. North, now appears to have played a central role in the White House affair, not as the man in the field but as the bureaucrat behind the desk.
Indeed, congressional investigators suspect that Rear Adm. Poindexter may prove a more valuable witness than his former aide when hearings begin next month, and they are exploring ways to force him to break his silence.
"He was in the key position, and it is inconceivable to us that he, rather than North, is not really in many ways one of the major players in this," said Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), vice chairman of the special Senate committee investigating the scandal.
Probably more than North, investigators believe, Poindexter also holds the answers to lingering questions about whether President Reagan knew that profits from the Iran arms sales were diverted to the Nicaraguan rebels. In the chain of command, North reported to Poindexter; Poindexter reported to the President.
"I think it still must be resolved what the President knew, and Poindexter is the one who can tell us," said a source close to the Senate investigation who asked not to be identified.
Further enhancing Poindexter's value as a witness are his analytical style and his reputedly computer-like memory. "Poindexter is an intelligent person with a good memory for detail and a realistic memory," the Senate source said.
The public's interest in the "glamorous" North put the "emphasis in maybe the wrong place," Rudman said. The Senate panel, he added, wants to cover "in great detail" the role played not just by North but by his former boss.
'North Is Sexier'
The Senate source added: "Let's face it, Ollie North is a hell of a lot sexier than John Poindexter. And I think that's why most people focused on North. Poindexter was this pipe smoker in a deerstalker's cap, whereas North was this dashing military hero."
This source said Poindexter's testimony will also be "very important" in helping the committee determine how the Iran-contra policy evolved. "Poindexter is more likely to be an architect of that policy than was North," the source said.
Poindexter, in refusing to testify thus far, has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. But a congressional source said the Senate investigating committee will probably force Poindexter to answer its questions by granting him immunity from prosecution that is based on his Senate testimony.
Could Not Invoke Fifth
In that event, Poindexter could still be indicted if the independent counsel investigating the Iran-contra affair built his case on evidence collected before Poindexter's testimony. But Poindexter could no longer use the Fifth Amendment as a reason to keep silent before the Senate committee, and he would be subject to a contempt of Congress charge if he persisted in his refusal to testify.
The congressional source, who asked not to be identified, said Poindexter will probably receive a grant of immunity before North does. Mandatory procedures involved with grants of immunity, the source said, mean that his testimony probably cannot come before May or June.
When the Iran-contra affair became public last November, Poindexter was portrayed as having little to do with the diversion of Iranian arms sale profits to the contras. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, in his Nov. 25 press conference disclosing the diversion, said: "The only persons in the United States government that knew precisely about this, the only person, was Lt. Col. North.
"Adm. Poindexter did know something of this nature was occurring, but he did not look into it further."
'Hints' From North
Poindexter, Meese later told the Senate Intelligence Committee, told him he had "enough hints" from North to know money was going to the Nicaragua insurgents but "didn't inquire further."
Reports From North
But reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee in January and the presidentially appointed Tower Commission last month disclosed that Poindexter received regular reports from North about his support for the contras and even ordered North to lie to hide them.
The Senate report described several instances in which Poindexter misled other Reagan Administration officials in an effort to protect the Iranian arms deal. Poindexter, according to the report, knew as early as November, 1985, that North was involved in an enterprise in Switzerland that was prepared to ship arms to Nicaragua.