Congressional investigators have ordered former White House aide Oliver L. North to deliver documents, including personal notebooks, relating to his activities in the Iran-contra operations by Tuesday morning or face possible criminal contempt proceedings, informed sources said yesterday.
The issuing of a new subpoena, which was delivered Thursday to North's attorney, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., represented a new step in a sharpening legal skirmish that will determine whether the central participant ever testifies before the House and Senate select committees on the Iran-contra affairs and a national television audience.
The skirmishing began Wednesday when Sullivan, in a surprise move, informed committee lawyers that Marine Lt. Col. North would not comply with a subpoena to report for preliminary questioning in private the next day or provide requested documents because of concern for his "due process."
At a meeting with Sullivan Thursday night, the Senate and House chief counsels, Arthur L. Liman and John W. Nields Jr. respectively, offered a compromise aimed at meeting some of Sullivan's concerns, but failed to resolve the impasse, sources said.
Yesterday the Senate select committee heard Liman's report and ruled out further compromises, setting up a legal poker game in which Sullivan has the next call.
The two committees earlier had voted to compel North's testimony under a grant of limited immunity from prosecution. On Wednesday, however, Sullivan argued that the initial subpoena for documents was too broad and that the committees' informal, closed-door depositions exposed his client to risks not covered by the immunity statute.
Some senior committee lawyers believe Sullivan has no intention of allowing North to testify and that his actions are more than mere delaying tactics.
They said Sullivan may have decided that the risks of his client's appearing, even under a grant of immunity, outweigh the bad publicity and penalties if he is found guilty of criminal contempt of Congress.
One risk of testifying is perjury, the most common charge brought against witnesses with immunity, which gives no legal protection for a witness found to have lied under oath. A committee member with extensive experience in criminal cases expressed some sympathy for Sullivan's position, noting that the initial plan was for North to be questioned under oath for dozens of hours by four skilled committee lawyers.
That testimony, plus additional hours under the glare of television lights at which North would also be questioned by senators and representatives, would generate hundreds, perhaps thousands of pages of testimony -- and many opportunities for North to perjure himself.
A clock is now ticking on the two committees, which have set an early August deadline for finishing public hearings. One prominent Washington criminal lawyer suggested that Sullivan may want to delay North's appearance long enough so that any criminal indictment from independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh's grand jury already would have been issued. Once indicted, this lawyer observed, North would have a strong argument that public testimony would get so much publicity that no jury could be found that could give him a fair trial.
Walsh has said he sees no reason to seek indictments before the committees end their hearings in August.
The subpoena for documents that North is required to answer Tuesday called only for "relevant" materials, a source said, and is less broad than an earlier request. The two committee staffs are particularly eager to obtain 10 spiral notebooks that North's former secretary, Fawn Hall, testified last week that she saw in Sullivan's office on Nov. 28.
She said North wrote up his daily activities in notebooks similar -- and perhaps identical -- to them.
The House committee, whose Democratic majority has been considerably less interested in granting immunity to North or compromising with his legal demands, is tentatively scheduled to meet Monday to hear Nields' report.