WASHINGTON — Former White House aide Oliver L. North, the leading character of the Iran- contra drama, ended a legal standoff with Congress on Wednesday by agreeing to testify publicly before the investigating committees beginning on July 7 and privately next Wednesday.
North's decision to testify under a grant of limited immunity from prosecution means that the Iran-contra hearings will not be deprived of their star witness. If North had refused to appear, the committees were prepared to hold him in contempt of Congress.
The former White House aide notified the committees of his willingness to testify after receiving written assurances that the public questioning would be limited to four days and the private testimony would center entirely on his knowledge of President Reagan's role in the Iran-contra affair.
Terms Not Dictated
But committee members emphasized that they did not permit North or his lawyer, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., to dictate the terms of his forthcoming testimony--something that members feared would set a bad precedent for Congress.
"No one can tell us how to run it," said Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate panel.
Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) added: "I think that the precedents and practices of the House have been accommodated fully and that the concerns of the witnesses have likewise been accommodated, and that we have done that consistent with the prerogatives of the Congress."
Committee attorneys said that by offering North some of the assurances he sought, the Congress averted a protracted legal battle that could have delayed or perhaps scuttled the investigation. It was feared that if the committees decided to go to court to press contempt charges against North, he might then be indicted by independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh and thus be freed of all obligation to testify before Congress.
Nevertheless, some dissenters on the committees said they had surrendered some of their power by engaging in weeklong negotiations with Sullivan over the terms of North's appearance.
Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) described the arrangement as "disastrous," and added: "When you play softball with hardball players, you often get beat." He said the committees should have offered North one choice: testify or go to jail for contempt.
In their letter to Sullivan, the committee lawyers pledged that when they question North in private next Wednesday, they will limit their interrogation to what North knows about any involvement by Reagan in the diversion of profits from the secret Iran arms sales to the Nicaraguan rebels--the most central issue in the congressional investigation of the Iran-contra affair. Reagan has denied any knowledge of the diversion.
The letter said the private questioning, in which North will be placed under oath, will be preceded by an informal, off-the-record interview.
Sullivan had earlier objected to any private questioning, arguing that it could weaken the protective power of the limited immunity that North will be offered by the committees. He asserted that the immunity statues do not pertain to private depositions.
Once North is formally granted limited immunity from prosecution when he appears on July 7, the independent counsel will be prohibited from using any information from North's testimony to build his criminal case against the former White House aide.
Duration of Questioning
Sullivan also had been seeking to limit the amount of time that North could be questioned, as well as the number of subjects that could be covered during testimony. In addition, he wanted a pledge from the committee that North would not be recalled for a second public appearance after being excused by the committee.
In response, the attorneys assured Sullivan that the committees intend to complete their public questioning of North no later than July 10--meaning he will be at the witness table for four straight days. They also said they do not foresee a need to later recall North "unless extraordinary developments create a compelling need."
At the same time, Hamilton said the investigators do not feel bound by these statements in their letter to Sullivan. "If it takes longer," he said, "we'll go longer."
Chief among the other witnesses still to be called by the committee is North's former boss, John M. Poindexter, who resigned as national security adviser the same day that North was fired from his post at the National Security Council. The committees have already interviewed Poindexter privately on several occasions.
Both North and Poindexter lost their jobs after an internal White House investigation turned up an unsigned, undated memorandum in North's safe revealing that profits from the arms sales had been diverted to the contras at a time when U.S. aid was banned.