The Senate committee probing the Iran- contra scandal voted today to grant limited immunity to former national security adviser John M. Poindexter, a move that would compel him to testify about what he told President Reagan about the affair.
Poindexter, the most important of 11 witnesses to date to be voted limited immunity from prosecution, has refused so far to testify about the scandal. Congressional committees and the special prosecutor investigating the case reached an agreement to grant immunity to him in April and to give immunity to his deputy, Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, in mid-June.
The Senate committee took its action by polling its members without a formal meeting. No vote was disclosed. The House panel investigating the scandal plans to take a similar vote Wednesday.
Poindexter, a Navy rear admiral, was Reagan's national security adviser until last Nov. 25 when the secret sale of U.S. arms to Iran and the possible diversion of profits to the Nicaraguan contras was made public.
He and North, who have so far claimed their Fifth Amendment right and refused to testify, are believed to have critical information that would help investigators piece together the worst scandal of the Reagan presidency.
A grant of limited immunity means Poindexter will have to testify or face a contempt citation that could land him in jail. While his testimony cannot be used against him, he could still face criminal charges if special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh develops independent evidence against him.
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Poindexter was at the center of activities in the White House and National Security Council during 1986 and served as deputy to Robert C. McFarlane when McFarlane served as Reagan's national security adviser in 1985.
When McFarlane left, Poindexter took over the post and met almost daily with Reagan during the major events of the Iran arms sales and their subsequent disclosure.
"He was in a good position to know how policy developed and what happened. He's a key figure and his testimony will be important," said Senate panel spokesman Lance Morgan.
Under an agreement reached last month with Walsh, the House and Senate committees investigating the Iran-contra affair agreed to wait until April 21 before voting on a grant of limited immunity for Poindexter and to defer private testimony from him until May 2.
The agreement calls for only three people to question Poindexter in private and keep his testimony under seal until mid-June, when he is expected to testify in public before the joint committee hearings.
The Tower Commission, which in February issued the most extensive report to date on the affair, described Poindexter as the person who seemed to know virtually all angles of the operation.
One thing congressional investigators are sure to ask Poindexter about are a batch of missing notes. The Tower Commission said Poindexter was the official note-taker in some key meetings at the National Security Council.