WASHINGTON — The Senate committee investigating the Iran- contra affair, acting according to a timetable agreed to by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, voted unanimously Tuesday to offer limited immunity to former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter as a means of compelling his testimony.
The House panel is expected to follow the Senate committee action at a meeting today.
Poindexter, who resigned amid revelations last November that profits from secret U.S. arms sales to Iran had been funneled to the Nicaraguan rebels, may be the only person who can answer the most central question in the investigation: How much, if anything, did President Reagan know about the apparently illegal support for the contras?
Reagan has said that he was not informed of the use of profits from the sale to finance contra operations. Poindexter is perhaps the only person who had both detailed knowledge of the activities and regular access to Reagan.
Refused to Testify
In several appearances before congressional committees since he resigned his White House post, Poindexter had refused to testify, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Under limited immunity--which already has been granted to more than a dozen of the lesser figures in the controversy--Poindexter could not be prosecuted based on information derived from his testimony. Walsh would have to base any legal case on information from other sources.
Walsh had sought to delay a grant of immunity as long as possible to give him time to develop evidence without relying on Poindexter's protected congressional testimony. However, his goal conflicted with the legislators' desire to have a speedy airing of the facts in the controversy, which forced the two sides to agree to a timetable for compelling testimony.
Under the arrangement worked out between Walsh and the congressional committees last month, Poindexter is to testify privately to a few lawmakers and staff as early as May 2. This will give legislators at least some idea of what Poindexter knows before their public hearings begin May 5. His public testimony will not occur before mid-June.
The agreement will allow the committees to decide no earlier than June 4 whether to offer immunity to fired White House aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North. If they decide that they need to compel North's testimony, he would be questioned privately as early as June 15, and his public testimony could occur June 23 at the earliest.
Separately, lawmakers said they may try to verify whether former CIA Director William J. Casey, who is suffering from brain cancer, is too ill to testify. Casey, who made a series of appearances on Capitol Hill last December, was stricken with a seizure caused by a brain tumor only hours before he had been scheduled to testify again. He has been reported to have been disabled by the cancer, though few details of his condition have been released.
A spokesman for the House panel said the two committees are discussing obtaining "an outside medical opinion," although "nothing's been decided yet."
The Senate committee issued a statement saying that any verification would be conducted "in a sensitive manner that will preserve the Casey family's right to privacy."
Casey's role in the affair has been the subject of much speculation, and some Administration officials and former associates of North have suggested that he may have masterminded the contra supply operation. The Tower Commission, which Reagan appointed to investigate the Iran-contra affair, noted that Casey had indications of the diversion of funds at least several weeks before it became public, and it faulted the former CIA director for not notifying the President.
Trail of Money
As they prepare to begin public hearings, the congressional panels are continuing behind the scenes to try to piece together the trail of money from Iran to Central America.
Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), vice chairman of the Senate committee, told United Press International that investigators now have "an excellent idea of where the majority of the money went, how it was handled."
He added: "We'll have it certainly as complete as you can ever get anything like that by the time the hearings start."