Washington — During the Watergate investigation, a folksy Southern senator - Sam Irvin of North Carolina - elicited some of the most revealing testimony by asking direct, down-to-earth questions. If anyone should don the Irvin mantle during the coming Senate hearings on the Iran-contra affair, it will likely be another plain-spoken Southerner, Howell Heflin of Alabama, one of 11 senators on a special committee chaired by Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii.
Senator Heflin is a burly man who, like Senator Irvin, has bushy eyebrows that rise and fall in cadence with his words. He, too, believes that the way in which people answer questions is sometimes as important as what they say.
``The body language when someone is trying to be evasive,'' he observes, sometimes speaks loudly.
But it is difficult for Heflin to play the ``simple country lawyer'' convincingly. After a long and distinguished career as a lawyer and judge, he is considered one of the Senate's top legal experts. His reputation for probity helped earn him the chairmanship of the Senate Ethics Committee.
Heflin, formerly the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, has already been scouring law books in search of precedents to guide him and his colleagues through the legal thicket that surrounds the Iran-contra investigation.
He also has pored over the testimony presented to the Senate Intelligence Committee late last year in order to take the measure of some of the key figures.
His preliminary verdict is that the legal obstacles are formidable and that, unless a good number are cleared away, ``we may never get to the bottom of this.''
Even more troubling, he says, is a disquieting undercurrent of evasion in much of the testimony so far.
``There is a certain bureaucratic lingo of evasion [used] in avoiding questions,'' he observes. ``And when that's done, it's usually done for a purpose.''
Whether that indicates involvement of higher-level White House officials in the affair, he says, ``remains to be seen.''
Heflin likens the unfolding Iran-contra investigation to a book. There are not many surprises left in the early chapters, he says, on the delivery of arms to Iran. The subsequent chapters, involving secret Swiss bank accounts, the diversion of funds to Nicaraguan contras, and the disappearance of some of the money, could contain the surprises, he says.
But simply getting past the opening pages, he adds, will require surmounting legal obstacles. Among them:
Conflicting legal jurisdictions.
The Watergate affair, he notes, concerned violation of US law. The Iran-contra affair, he says, is shaping up as a ``global'' investigation. Some of the key events took place outside the US. Secret bank accounts were in Switzerland. Arms were shipped to Iran via Israel, Portugal, and to the contras via Honduras and El Salvador. The arms merchants and financiers reside in a number of countries. Some of these countries have different kinds of ``judicial assistance treaties'' providing varying levels of cooperation with US investigators.
The most likely area of cooperation between these countries, he suggests, may not involve clandestine arms sales at all, but instead fraudulent use of the purses from both sales.
Conflicting aims in the various investigations of the Iran-contra affair.
The independent counsel now probing the affair is looking for prosecutable offenses, Heflin says. The congressional committees are looking for a full explanation for the complicated chain of events.
The investigators represent two different branches of government. They could, therefore, arrive at different conclusions on the best way to proceed, especially on the thorny question of granting immunity to witnesses to compel their testimony.
A public airing of the controversy by Congress, Heflin says, may also complicate the prosecutor's job of avoiding prejudicial pretrial publicity. And publicity could also be a complicating factor in relations between the House and Senate committees, he says.
``I'm sure there will be competition to bring [former National Security Council aide, Lt. Col. Oliver] North, [former national-security adviser, Vice-Adm. John M.] Poindexter, and others before the Congress,'' he says.
The clash between the public's right to know and the nation's need to keep secrets.
``The [Central Intelligence Agency], obviously, is involved'' in the Iran-contra affair, says Heflin. Members of the House and Senate Intelligence Commitees - some of whom sit on the select investigative committees - will also work to ensure that the probe does not compromise the nation's sources and methods of intelligence gathering. That will also be a factor to be weighed in prosecutions, he says.
Heflin, for example, politely steers conversations away from the question of what messages involving the Iran-contra affair were intercepted by the super-secret National Security Agency. He says there are ``no more bombshells'' to emerge from the Senate Intelligence Committee's initial investigation of the affair. But ``the bombshells could be dropped ... from what developed in the contra aspects'' of the investigation, he adds.
The question of executive privilege.
Might the Reagan White House seek to withhold from Congress certain key documents - as the Nixon White House did years ago - on grounds of ``executve privilege?'' Heflin asks. Then, the issue was tape recordings. Now, it could be computer data. The White House, Heflin says, indicates it has turned over certain ``floppy disks'' to the Justice Department containing electronic messages sent between National Security Council offices by Colonel North.
Heflin stresses that he is no expert on computerization, but he suspects that the electronic data collected within the White House go far beyond a few floppy disks.
``It is inconceivable to me that the White House has such an elementary computer letter-writing system as that,'' he says, raising the possibility that selective disclosure of some electronic data may be designed to divert attention away from other information.
Immunity for key witnesses.
Inevitably, the senator says, the question of immunity from prosecution in return for testimony will arise.
But, he cautions, ``immunity is not used until it's a last resort, or to catch a bigger fish.''
``It's premature now to say whether we're going to [grant] it,'' he adds.
Then, ever the jurist, he pulls from his desk top a 1969 legal case. The case raises the question, he says, of whether figures like North and Poindexter can talk about their activities with Attorney General Edwin Meese III and then later refuse to testify before the Senate.
``I've been doing some reading,'' says the senator, which is an understated way of indicating he's already pursuing the legal intricacies of the case. The half-smile on his face makes it clear that, before the affair is over, he'll be doing a lot more reading.