WASHINGTON — Members of the congressional committees investigating the Iran- contra scandal are growing "angrier and angrier" at former White House aide Oliver L. North for his refusal to testify in private before the panels and could begin criminal contempt proceedings against North as early as next week, sources close to the panels said Friday.
The committees issued a new subpoena to North on Thursday, ordering him to appear before them next week and to deliver a list of documents, including personal notebooks and financial records, a spokesman for the Senate panel said.
"We had to issue a new subpoena because he didn't comply with the old one," said the spokesman, Lance Morgan. "In content, it's basically the same subpoena."
Committee investigators, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, however, that the conflict has clearly sharpened between the panels and North, who once stated that he was eager to testify but now appears to be maneuvering to avoid telling his story.
"They're getting angrier and angrier," one aide said of the Senate and House members. "Absent any change or any agreement, it's conceivable that contempt proceedings could begin next week."
But the aide said the committees still are hoping to avoid citing North for contempt, a charge that could send him to prison but would also delay his testimony for an indefinite time.
Next Tuesday, when North has been ordered to appear, could bring several outcomes, the aide said. North could agree to testify in private, as the subpoena orders. He could continue to refuse to testify in private but produce the documents ordered by the subpoena. Or he could refuse to testify or produce the documents.
If North produces the documents but refuses to testify, "We could accept the documents and continue to consider the issue of his appearance," one aide said. "But there is no decision one way or the other."
North refused to comply with the earlier subpoena this week after his lawyer contended that the limited immunity extended by the committees to compel his testimony did not cover private sessions. The lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., maintained that his private testimony therefore would expose North to criminal prosecution on information he provided in that forum.
Committee members rejected that objection but offered a compromise under which North, rather than be interviewed in private, would be questioned in a closed "executive" session of the committees before his scheduled public testimony in mid-July.
The two committees' lawyers, Arthur L. Liman and John W. Nields Jr., met with Sullivan late Thursday and insisted that that technical change should resolve the matter. A Senate committee spokesman said Friday that the two sides discussed "a range of options on how to proceed" but said that the talks were "inconclusive."
The panels have questioned most other witnesses in private to prepare for the public testimony.
May Want Contempt Action
Some committee members have charged that North actually wants to be held in contempt of Congress--betting that, during the appeals process, he would be indicted by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh and thereby would save himself the embarrassment of publicly testifying before the committees.
Panel members have said that, although they are willing to cite him for contempt, they are eager to avoid a drawn-out legal battle that would delay the continuation of the hearings. North is considered the central figure in the Iran-contra scandal, and investigators believe that his testimony is needed to determine how much top White House officials, including President Reagan, knew of the apparently illegal efforts to secretly aid the Nicaraguan rebels during the period that government aid to the rebels was legally banned.