Noriega Nemesis

CARL T. ROWAN

December 18, 1991|By CARL T. ROWAN

BOCA RATON, FLORIDA — Boca Raton, Florida. -- Down the road in Miami, in the trial of the former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, revelations keep erupting that may be very embarrassing for President Bush. The latest, revealed by the newspaper Newsday, is that for several years in the 1980s Mr. Noriega was giving the United States Drug Enforcement Agency information about who flew into Panama carrying drug money, and how and where that money was laundered.

What's worse, the prosecutors apparently have withheld information about this collaboration from the Panamanian general's defense attorneys, opening the door for Judge William M. Hoeveler possibly to declare a mistrial. Mr. Noriega has been indicted on 10 counts of cocaine trafficking, money laundering and racketeering.

If Mr. Noriega walks free on grounds that he was doing the bidding of, and paid by, the U.S. government, it would be a harsh blow to the foreign-policy reputation that Mr. Bush has established through military attacks on Panama and Iraq. The president can hardly afford that at the start of a re-election campaign in which he is also being accused of domestic blunders.

The question is whether President Bush knew about the extent of Mr. Noriega's collaboration with the DEA, and probably also the CIA, when he launched his highly personal and emotional campaign to capture the dictator, strip him of power in Panama and put him in a U.S. prison. If Mr. Bush did not know what the DEA was doing with Mr. Noriega, why not?

These questions are not trifling. In order to capture Mr. Noriega, Mr. Bush ordered a military attack in which many Panamanian civilians were killed. Damage was done to the economy of Panama that has not been repaired till this date.

The White House argument, which does not go directly to defense-lawyer claims that the prosecution has behaved illegally, may be that Mr. Noriega was a double agent, and that Mr. Bush was justifiably outraged by his perfidy.

Carlos Lehder, a founder of the Medellin Colombia drug cartel who is now in prison in the United States, has testified in the Miami trial that Mr. Noriega gave Colombian drug lords the names, addresses and photographs of secret DEA agents in Panama. But how much credibility does Lehder have when it is obvious he wants a deal that will shorten his time in prison? Mr. Noriega has denied any illegal involvement in the drug trade.

Nothing has come out in the Miami trial that wipes out the assertions that Mr. Noriega is an evil man. He played dirty games that made him a rich man. But so far his prosecutors have not been able to show beyond doubt that the Panamanian tyrant got rich off peddling drugs and laundering money. The possibility remains that his bank accounts were stuffed by the DEA and the CIA, and even other elements of the U.S. government.

Mr. Noriega's lawyers have subpoenaed DEA agents who allegedly worked with him from 1983 to 1987 in a secret intelligence operation called ''Operation Negocio.'' If, under oath, they confirm this collaboration, and admit to substantial money payments to Mr. Noriega, the prosecution will be in trouble.

So will the president, who sent Stealth fighters and other destructive forces into Panama, either out of personal contempt lTC for Mr. Noriega, or out of ignorance of years-long U.S. collusions with the Panamanian leader.

9- Carl. T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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