Profiles » John Poindexter
After serving as National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane’s deputy for two years, Navy Vice Admiral John Poindexter was appointed by President Reagan as national security adviser in December 1985. He held that position for less than a year, as he was forced to resign in November 1986 when the diversion of profits from the Iran arms sales to the Contras was exposed and Attorney General Edwin Meese III revealed that Poindexter had known of it.
The Independent Counsel won a joint indictment against Poindexter, his deputy Oliver North, retired Air Force Major General and businessman Richard Secord, and Secord’s business partner Albert Hakim in March 1988. However, because the four claimed the need for the testimony of the others in their trials, which was a problem because of their Fifth Amendment right to protect against self-incrimination, their cases were separated.
Walsh charged Poindexter with five counts, including that he conspired with North and Secord to lie to Congress and obstructed its inquiries, that he obstructed Congress by knowingly lying when he denied North’s support for the Contras, and that he constructed incorrect chronologies of arms sales to Iran and lied to congressional intelligence committees regarding those sales.
Throughout the case, the prosecution relied on North’s testimony, even though he was a hostile witness (he hoped that the jury would find Poindexter “not guilty”). Although Poindexter had told Congress that no U.S. official knew before January 1986 that missiles had been shipped to Iran in November 1985, North admitted that he had told Poindexter about that sale in 1985. Similarly, North had confessed in his own trial to having seen Poindexter destroy a covert-action Finding that retroactively permitted CIA involvement in the November 1985 shipment of missiles to Iran.
Two major legal issues plagued this case. First, Poindexter claimed to need a wide range of classified documents in his defense, and the presiding judge was forced to sort through his requests to decide which were truly relevant. That is why, rather than charge him with committing a broad conspiracy based on his actions in support of the Contras, Walsh focused on the more specific conspiracy to hide those actions from Congress.
In addition, Congress had immunized all testimony that Poindexter had given during the hearings so that he would be willing to discuss the sales to Iran and aid to the Contras. That meant that Walsh’s staff could not see, listen to, or hear from friends about the famous hearings. Before the trial began, the trial judge held that they had not been inappropriately exposed to testimony, that the grand jury that indicted Poindexter did not use that testimony based on the orders of the Independent Counsel, and that Walsh’s office had leads to all of its witnesses independent of the hearings.
Once at trial, Poindexter’s defense centered on demonstrating that President Reagan had been aware of and approved Poindexter's activities. But, as a witness, Reagan frequently failed to remember Iran-Contra matters clearly. Ultimately, Poindexter was found guilty of all five felonies. He was sentenced to six months imprisonment on each charge, to be served concurrently (at the same time for a total of six months).
However, because of the issue of potential contamination of the trial by the immunized testimony Poindexter gave to Congress, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed his convictions, as it had in North’s trial. Specifically, the judges were concerned that witnesses’ memories might have been refreshed or even slightly altered as a result of the testimony. Since the hearings Walsh held after the Court of Appeals ruled in North’s trial showed that certain witnesses had indeed been affected by the congressional testimony, Walsh chose not to hold similar hearings again and dropped all charges against Poindexter.