WASHINGTON — Independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh said Friday that he would scale back the government's prosecution of former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter in the Iran-Contra affair to reduce problems of disclosing classified information in open court.
Walsh disclosed that decision at a court hearing at which Richard W. Beckler, Poindexter's defense attorney, served notice that he will seek to subpoena President Bush and former President Ronald Reagan to testify at Poindexter's trial later this year.
Walsh told U.S. District Judge Harold H. Greene, who will conduct the trial, that he will drop two major criminal counts--theft of government property and wire fraud--and portions of a third count charging a broad conspiracy against the government.
Walsh's action would leave intact four other counts against Poindexter that accuse him of obstructing Congress and making false statements about a secret resupply mission to the Nicaraguan Contras as well as a 1985 U.S. arms shipment to Iran.
A similar, scaled-down approach was used by the prosecution in the recent Iran-Contra trial of former White House aide Oliver L. North. But the retention of a part of the conspiracy count left the Poindexter case somewhat broader than North's.
Earlier this spring, Walsh had expressed hope that the broad array of charges could be pressed, but continuing problems with handling of sensitive national security information apparently interfered.
Reduction of the counts is expected to simplify and shorten the Poindexter trial, as well as the separate trial of retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord, another Iran-Contra defendant.
After the court hearing, Walsh filed court papers disclosing that he also would drop conspiracy, theft and wire fraud charges against Secord, whose trial is scheduled for Nov. 13.
Secord, who allegedly helped North solve logistical problems in the Contra resupply mission, will be tried on 12 other counts, principally that he lied under oath during official investigations into his conduct.
Poindexter's trial has not yet been scheduled.
Raising the subpoena issue, Beckler told the court hearing that Poindexter, unlike North, had "substantial contact" with Reagan and Bush while serving at the White House and therefore should be allowed to obtain their testimony at his trial. Beckler said Poindexter saw Reagan on almost a daily basis and met frequently with then-Vice President Bush.
Greene said he would withhold ruling on such subpoenas until Beckler officially seeks them. U.S. District Judge Gerhard A. Gesell, who conducted North's trial, quashed defense subpoenas for Bush and Reagan last January on grounds that their testimony was unnecessary, holding that presidents should be immune from answering to the courts for their official actions in all but the most extreme circumstances.
David Runkel, a special assistant to Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh, said Justice Department lawyers undoubtedly would ask the judge to quash such subpoenas, as they did successfully in the North trial.
North, meanwhile, is scheduled to be sentenced next Friday on his conviction last month on three felony charges in the Iran-Contra case. The retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel faces a possible maximum punishment of 10 years in prison and $750,000 in fines.
Poindexter, who was first deputy and then national security adviser during the Iran-Contra affair, has taken responsibility for authorizing most of the covert operations directed by North. Testifying with immunity, he told Congress during nationally televised hearings in 1987 that he never advised Reagan in advance of these events. Bush has said he never knew any details of the operations.