WASHINGTON — The trial of ex-White House aide Oliver L. North was postponed today until after the presidential election to give lawyers more time to study hundreds of thousands of top-secret documents.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell canceling the Sept. 20 date means that the first criminal trial arising from the Iran-Contra affair won't be held while Vice President George Bush campaigns for the presidency.
Bush, whose acquiescence in the decision to conduct arms-for-hostage deals with Iran has been criticized by Democratic rival Michael S. Dukakis, will be free to campaign before the Nov. 8 election without possibly embarrassing reports from the trial.
North's lawyers had threatened to subpoena Bush as a witness, apparently as part of their efforts to show that the former National Security Council aide was authorized to divert arms-sale profits to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.
The delay will inevitably renew speculation about post-election presidential pardons for North and former national security adviser John M. Poindexter, who is scheduled to be tried separately.
President Reagan has repeatedly defended both men as innocent of any criminal wrongdoing. He said in May that he had not ruled out granting them pardons, but he indicated that such would not be forthcoming until a verdict was rendered. Reagan leaves office Jan. 21.
No Date Set
Gesell did not schedule a new trial date but ordered North's lawyers to file any additional motions by Oct. 10.
The judge also set that date as the deadline for the prosecution to give North all the top-secret documents the court has ruled may be needed for the retired Marine lieutenant colonel's defense.
The brief order was issued after both sides requested delays in dealing with the problems posed by the vast archive of top-secret documents said to include several hundred thousand pages of material.
Gesell has previously ruled that North is entitled to inspect the documents to determine what material might help him persuade a jury that his activities were authorized by the Reagan Administration.
More Time Sought
Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh sought more time for the CIA and other agencies to search for classified material that Gesell ruled should be made available to North.
The defense, meanwhile, had accused Gesell of setting deadlines too near for lawyers to study the secret documents already turned over by prosecutors.
North's lawyers harshly attacked the judge in pleadings filed Thursday, saying, "In its frantic rush to trial before the election, the court seems to have abandoned all sense of what is fair."
Gesell's brief order also canceled a hearing scheduled for Monday on how to present secret documents as evidence during the trial under the Classified Information Procedures Act.
Protest From Lawyers
North's lawyers protested that they had not been given enough time to prepare for the hearing, saying if it went forward as scheduled it "will be a complete sham, and the court knows it."
Gesell also ordered North to file by Nov. 14 a more specific notice of what top-secret government documents he wants to disclose at trial.
The judge agreed with Walsh's view that the 265-page list of government documents North filed Monday was not the specific notice required by law.
Gesell's order highlights the problems that continue to dog Walsh's efforts to bring the case to trial.
If enough relevant documents are kept secret, the judge would be forced to dismiss some or all of the charges, notably the three major conspiracy counts against North, Poindexter and arms dealers Albert Hakim and retired Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord. All four have been granted separate trials.