WASHINGTON — THE Iran-contra trial of John Poindexter contains several levels of meaning. Legally the question is whether the jury finds Admiral Poindexter, President Reagan's former national security adviser, guilty of five charges. He is accused of conspiracy, obstructing congressional inquires, and lying to Congress to thwart its investigation into the diversion to the Nicaraguan contras of profits from US arms sales to Iran. This at a time when Congress had banned such aid.
``Poindexter is basically asserting that [Reagan] had authorized these actions'' and that [Poindexter] was merely carrying them out, says Ellen Kreitzberg, a professor of criminal law at the University of Santa Clara in California.
But the trial now slowly spooling out in the shadow of Capitol Hill reveals other allusions and undercurrents that include an assessment of: ultimate responsibility, former President Reagan's role, presidential rights to privacy, nuances in defense strategy, and morality.
The most important thing the trial might finally tell America is ``who really was in charge of this operation,'' says Jack Friedenthal, dean of the National Law Center of George Washington University. ``Why did it happen? And, in essence, how can we prevent it from happening again?''
``What actually happened is fairly clear,'' Dean Friedenthal notes. ``We know that the money was transferred. What we don't know is who ordered it and why.''
The $64,000 question is whether this information will come out during the trial. ``It's an odd situation'' with fingers pointing every which way, Friedenthal notes. In his videotaped deposition former President Reagan ``essentially is saying he did nothing illegal,'' Friedenthal says. And reluctant witness Ollie North, who has been on the witness stand this week, appears to be trying to blame Poindexter's predecessor, Robert McFarlane, he says. To win a not-guilty verdict, Poindexter ``has to build at least enough of a case that the jury'' believes Poindexter felt the president had directed him to act as he did, Friedenthal says. Inasmuch as the Reagan videotape did not much help the admiral's case, ``that's where the diaries come in,'' he says.
``The most interesting part of the trial will be ... how much of the diaries will be disclosed by the defense,'' Professor Kreitzberg says. If Poindexter lawyers use them only sparingly, she says, Americans will wonder whether they failed to support the admiral's assertions that he was operating under Reagan's instructions.
Such public use of a president's diaries brings up the question of presidential privacy: ``What privacy does the president have as to his diaries?'' Friedenthal asks. It's a question without an automatic answer, he says: ``There's a balance'' between privacy and society's need for information in the diaries.
The prosecution at this writing is presenting its case against Poindexter. Once the admiral's defense begins, it will be interesting to see which nuances they stress, many law professors say.
They may employ ``the defense of justification,'' says Sanford Kadish, a professor of law at University of California in Berkeley: that the president had the right to order the diversion of funds, and that Poindexter had the right to obey it.
Questions of guilt or innocence also run through this case on a moral level, Friedenthal says. If a person in Poindexter's shoes doubted the propriety of what he was being asked to do, ``Where does your moral judgment take over?'' These ``are very interesting and tough questions,'' Friedenthal adds - and the answers are tougher.