Disagreement along partisan lines surfaced Wednesday over whether two key figures in the Iran-contra affair -- Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North and former national security adviser John Poindexter -- should be quickly granted immunity from prosecution.
Rep. William Broomfield, R-Mich., the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he wants to seek grants of immunity for North and Poindexter "just as soon as we possibly can."
"I think if that happens, " Broomfield said, "we will be able to conclude this investigation very shortly, because they are the key men to knowing exactly what happened and who gave them the instructions for the diversion of funds as well as the transfer of arms into Iran."
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But House Democrats immediately responded that they would not support granting immunity -- which could bar any prosecution of either man -- at least until an independent counsel is named to investigate the scandal.
Said Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, "We can bring this investigation to a close quickly if we have total cooperation from the president and from his administration with regard to documents, conversations, memoranda. We don't have that at this point. . . ."
North and Poindexter refused Tuesday to testify before a nationally televised hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and invoked their Fifth Amendment rights against self- incrimination. They and their attorneys said they were awaiting the naming of an independent counsel -- sought by Meese last week to investigate the affair -- before they would testify anywhere.
Under the 1970 Omnibus Crime Control Act, a majority of either house or a two-thirds majority of a committee may ask a federal district court to grant immunity to North, Poindexter or any other recalcitrant witness who is a potential target of prosecution.
If granted, such immunity would prevent prosecutors from using a witness's testimony -- or any evidence uncovered as a result of his testimony -- against him in a criminal case.
Broomfield's comments, made first on NBC's Today show, drew immediate criticism from Democrats who said it was premature. Broomfield acknowledged later that any committee action on immunity would probably have to wait until January, when Congress reconvenes and the Senate and House establish separate special committees to probe the Iran-contra affair.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., questioned Broomfield's motives, noting that White House communications director Patrick J. Buchanan on Monday had urged Republicans to "start firing from the upper floors" at "the investigative engines of a hostile Congress and the artillery of an adversary press."
Bloomfield echoed Buchanan Wednesday morning: "I think the press and other people have made a mountain out of a molehill."
Said Lantos, "I would not be surprised if (Bloomfield's timing) was orchestrated." Broomfield could not be reached for a response to Lantos.
At least one other Republican, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also supports granting immunity quickly to at least North and Poindexter.
In contrast, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, "thinks that would be inappropriate, " according to a Leahy aide. "He (Leahy) doesn't want to tie the special prosecutor's hands."
Meanwhile, Archibald Cox, the former Watergate special prosecutor who was fired in 1974 by President Nixon in the famous "Saturday Night Massacre, " urged Congress Wednesday to "refrain from granting immunity to any potential witnesses . . . until after other sources of information have been fully explored and the role of the potential witness is understood."
Herald Washington Bureau correspondent Aaron Epstein contributed to this report.