Washington — The Iran-contra spotlight has suddenly shifted to a man who now appears to have been a crucial figure in the affair: Rear Adm. John Poindexter. Admiral Poindexter, the national-security adviser in 1985 and '86, is expected to appear before congressional investigators beginning today.
Iran-contra committee members say they will ask him about a memo, bearing his initials, which implies that President Reagan was told that profits from arms sales to Iran were to be used for unspecified covert operations.
``It is up to the admiral now to tell us if he briefed the President, and, if so, what he told him,'' Senate committee chairman Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii said yesterday.
Committee sources say they have expected that Poindexter would be an important witness. But two recent developments have made the former National Security Council chief seem a larger figure in the affair than previously thought.
The first was the initialed memo, which was revealed publicly by Senator Inouye on a Sunday television news show.
The second was the performance of Lt. Col. Oliver North as a witness. Over a week of congressional testimony Colonel North has become a more sympathetic figure to many committee members, in part by insisting that everything he did was approved by his boss, Poindexter.
North's appearance before the Iran-contra committees was scheduled to end yesterday. Rank-and-file committee members finally got a chance to ask North questions Monday.
As they did, it became clear that while most wished to treat him with respect, even Republicans among them felt Congress had been wronged by his actions.
Rep. William Broomfield (R) of Michigan, for instance, said that he felt North should not be prosecuted for what he had done in the Iran-contra affair.
But he told how a handful of senior members of Congress had been informed by President Roosevelt of secret atomic bomb research during World War II, and he said that such consultation is a necessary part of the American process of government.
``I have to say that if the administration had been more forthright, things probably would have worked out better,'' Mr. Broomfield said, referring to Iran-contra events.
Sen. Paul Trible (R) of Virginia, who throughout the hearings has alternately defended and criticized the Reagan administration, focused on the lack of financial oversight of North's actions during his half-hour of questions.
He said that because of this lack of control North was betrayed by others in the operation. ``This shows the sheer folly of conducting the people's business without checks and balances,'' Senator Trible said.
Some Democratic members of the committees went even further in their criticism of the way Congress, and in their belief congressional intent, was ignored in the whole affair.
Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine argued that senior members of Congress, if informed, could have warned President Reagan away from selling arms to Iran and thus saved him much political damage.
Senator Mitchell further lectured North that Americans who opposed aid to the Nicaraguan rebels could ``still love God and still love this country just as much as you do.
``In America, disagreement with the policies of the government is not evidence of lack of patriotism,'' Mitchell said.
Still, North remained unrepentant about his role in hiding Iran-contra activities from Congress. In response to questions, he made it clear that he believes any president has a right within his constitutional authority to conduct any covert intelligence operations he pleases.
He continued to maintain that selling arms to Iran and then diverting some of the proceeds to the contras was a good idea. He said he did not think that the Iran half of the affair represented ``concessions to terrorists.''
The course of North's testimony has also made it clear that at least some senior administration officials intended that the network of private operators enlisted for Iran-contra actions be used for other covert operations.
North said that as early as 1984 former central intelligence director William Casey was musing about development of an ``off the shelf'' capability to covert operations outside his own agency.
Money from arms sales to Iran was used for some other secret purposes, notably purchase of a ship that was to be a base for clandestine radio broadcasts to a Middle Eastern country.