Former national security adviser John M. Poindexter briefed President Reagan last September about certain covert "initiatives" that were to be financed by proceeds of U.S.-Iran arms sales, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) said yesterday.

Appearing on CBS News' "Face the Nation," the chairman of the Senate select committee said the information was contained in an "important document" that is expected to be one focus of questioning when Poindexter succeeds former National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North this week as the witness before the joint congressional panels investigating the Iran-contra scandal.

The document is a Sept. 15, 1986, memorandum from North to Poindexter prior to Reagan's meeting with then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The memo suggests that Poindexter brief Reagan about "initiatives" outlined in an attachment. Next to "approve" are Poindexter's initials and a notation, "Done."

On Friday, Senate counsel Arthur L. Liman asked North if the initiatives were to be funded out of "residuals" -- North's description of the profits from U.S.-Iran arms sales. North replied that they were. The memo attachment released Friday did not specify what the initiatives were, but North described them to the committee in closed session Thursday evening.

Inouye made clear that there was no indication that the covert activities of which Reagan had been informed included the diversion of funds to the contras. "That memo does not speak of diverting the residuals for the use of the contras; it says using the residuals for other covert activities."

Nevertheless, it is the first document to raise the possibility that Reagan may have known of plans to use the highly controversial arms sales transactions to generate an "off-the-books" fund that would be available for future covert actions not known to Congress.

Time magazine and Newsweek polls released yesterday showed that a majority of those polled believe that Reagan knew about and approved the Iran-contra operation {Details on Page A6.}

Other points made yesterday on television interview shows:Inouye, who is familiar with Poindexter's expected testimony, said, "I haven't seen anything, as far as I am concerned, that would be sufficient grounds to impeach the president of the United States." However, he said, "We have presidents and other high officials brought before the bar of the Congress and indicted for lesser offenses." Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said on ABC News' "This Week With David Brinkley," "I hope to hell that nobody indicts Oliver North on what's happened so far, in spite of the fact that there have been mistakes." Hatch said venality and criminal intent were lacking in North's case. Inouye said that although North had been "rather explosively candid" in some of his testimony, some documents "suggest that he wasn't absolutely candid." Sen. Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), cochairman of the Senate panel, said on "Face the Nation" that although Poindexter will implicate the late CIA director William J. Casey in some aspects of the scandal, "I do not believe it would be fair to say that this will all get laid on Director Casey." Vice President Bush told Reuters through a spokesman that Bush has ruled out testifying before the panels. "It would be inappropriate for either the president or vice president to testify," he said.

Rudman yesterday described Poindexter as a "vitally important witness" who had "virtually open access to the president."

But both Rudman and Inouye left tantalizing ambiguities about what he will say about the president's knowledge of controversial activities, even though they both have had access to Poindexter's sworn, private statements. That information is being closely held by the four leaders of the House and Senate committees and by staff lawyers who questioned him.

Rudman said at one point, "I think the president may well have stated the truth from the beginning on this point."

But when broadcast interviewer Lesley Stahl suggested that "you have just signaled us that Poindexter will testify that he never discussed the diversion with the president," Rudman replied: "I would not necessarily reach that conclusion; that's a simple black-and-white situation. I think you are going to have to hear Poindexter's testimony, how he phrases it, what he says, why he did what he did."

Rudman and Inouye, however, were less reserved in their comments about Attorney General Edwin Meese III and the manner in which he conducted his fact-finding inquiry last November in the midst of what North has testified was the heavy shredding and alteration of documents, and which North and others have acknowledged was a cover-up of the Iran-contra activities.

"It was the gang that couldn't shoot straight. They couldn't even get their gun out of the holster," Rudman said.

Inouye, in a more serious vein, said, "It places a terrible cloud over the whole Justice Department. Was this a cover-up? Was this malfeasance? Was this negligence. Or what was it?"

Meese has already been questioned by the committees in closed session and will testify in public probably later this month.

The controversial Sept. 15, 1986, North memo to Poindexter referred to yesterday by Inouye came at a time when the Israelis were pressing the U.S. government to continue its secret initiatives with Iran.

The attachment on which Poindexter indicated he briefed the president noted that several weeks earlier, "Peres expressed concern that the U.S. may be contemplating termination of current efforts with Iran. The Israelis view the hostage issue as a hurdle which must be crossed en route to a broadened strategic relationship with the Iranian government. It is likely Peres will seek assurance the U.S. will continue with the current joint initiative."

It also pointed out that it would be helpful if Reagan thanked Peres for the Israelis' "discreet assistance" in releasing two American hostages, both of whose liberation was linked to a secret Israeli or American arms shipments to Iran.

Some 28 lines of the attachment, which was released Friday by the panels, are blacked out and apparently relate to joint U.S.-Israeli covert operations connected to hostages.

North testified at one point last week that he believed the Israelis were using profits from their arms sales to Iran to support secret intelligence activities, and that he had held discussions with his Israeli counterpart Amiram Nir about the scheme.

He also said that joint Israeli-U.S covert activities that he called "TA 1, 2, and 3 -- or TH 1, 2 and 3, I can't remember which" had been discussed with Casey, Poindexter and possibly former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane.

Although the document indicates that Poindexter did brief the president on the "initiatives," only Poindexter will be able to say whether the president was also told that the activities would be funded from U.S.-Iran arms sales proceeds.

As Rudman put it, "The question is: In what detail?"