Monday, September 10, 2007
Reprinted as a Public Service of Austin Airwaves.
A surprisingly frank and candid explanation from someone who was there at the time and
By EVERETT ELLIS BRIGGS
September 9, 2007
THE deposed dictator of Panama, Manuel Antonio Noriega, was to have been released from a federal prison outside Miami today after serving 15 years of a 30-year sentence for narcotics trafficking. Instead, he remains behind bars pending extradition to France, where he is wanted for money laundering. And that’s not Mr. Noriega’s only legal problem: in Panama there is a warrant for his arrest for the 1985 assassination of a political opponent, Hugo Spadafora.
As Mr. Noriega re-emerges from the shadows, it’s worth remembering how badly the United States mishandled the Panamanian misadventure, which led to the loss of hundreds of lives and cost us politically throughout the region. Mr. Noriega’s rise and fall is instructive only insofar as it tells us how the United States should not conduct itself when faced with a thuggish foreign dictator who happens also to have been a longtime intelligence “asset.”
I witnessed the Noriega fiasco firsthand. After years in charge of Panama’s intelligence service, he ascended to power during my term as ambassador to Panama. Later, when I was ambassador to nearby Honduras and then as a member of the National Security Council under President George H. W. Bush, I had bit parts in the unfolding drama.
This is my version of what happened in the years between the time he seized power and his capture in 1989.
In the summer of 1985, during Ronald Reagan’s second term as president, I made a stopover in Mexico City, on my way to Panama, to visit my friend Jack Gavin, the actor turned diplomat who was then the ambassador to Mexico. Ed Meese, the attorney general, happened to be visiting at the same time, and the two of us sat down with the Gavins for supper.
I complained to Mr. Meese about the United States government’s apparent unwillingness to investigate General Noriega’s involvement with the drug trade. Once or twice a month, Panamanians would ask members of my staff, “When are you guys going to do something about Noriega and his drug smuggling?” But whenever I asked my intelligence people or the Drug Enforcement Administration to investigate a particular story, invariably I was told there was nothing to the allegations.
General Noriega’s longtime relationship with our military and civilian intelligence services, and the drug agency’s apparent satisfaction with the crumbs of cooperation it was getting from his Panamanian Defense Forces, were the only ways to explain Washington’s apparent lack of curiosity, I suggested.
Meanwhile, I said, General Noriega was trying to undermine the presidency of Nicolás Ardito Barletta, a respected international banker and former student of George Shultz, then the secretary of state. Having maneuvered himself into command of the country’s military in 1984, General Noriega had originally thrown his weight behind Mr. Barletta, helping him win a seriously flawed “election” that earned Mr. Barletta the nickname “Fraudito” in opposition circles.
But when Mr. Barletta tried to govern honestly — to rein in the bureaucracy, reform the banks and the legal system, and direct government assistance so that it would nourish the economy rather than enrich Panamanian kleptocrats — General Noriega decided he must go. That was a problem, I argued. Panama needed someone like Mr. Barletta in power, particularly with the scheduled turnover of the canal and the treaty-mandated American exit from the isthmus by 2000.
I was delighted when Mr. Meese immediately instructed the two assistants who were with him to open a Justice Department investigation into General Noriega’s possible involvement with drug trafficking. It was Mr. Meese’s decisiveness that gave me comfort when, not long after the dinner, General Noriega finally forced Mr. Barletta to resign in favor of a more pliant successor. At least the attorney general would be keeping an eye on the general.
At first, the Reagan administration seemed focused on the problem. After Mr. Barletta’s September resignation, the United States decided to try to block General Noriega from interfering with Panama’s civilian government. Soon after Mr. Barletta’s departure, John Poindexter, the national security adviser, and Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, made a secret stopover at an Air Force base in the former Canal Zone, near Panama City. In a private lounge away from any base activity, the three of us met with General Noriega.
Our underlying message was this: You know the current state of our relations with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (where the Pentagon was providing support to the contras in their war against the ruling government). If you continue to act as a destabilizing force, you can expect the United States to turn on you as we have turned on them.
General Noriega knew of America’s covert support for the contras, because he had collaborated with us on several occasions. So he had to understand the warning. Unfortunately, in the first in a series of missteps, our message was compromised. Right after the meeting, without my authorization, the local C.I.A. chief in Panama called on General Noriega to find out how the meeting had gone. The general must have taken this visit as an indication that he need not worry, because his old friends in intelligence remained supportive.
Within hours of the Air Force base meeting, I left for Washington, for an interagency review of the Panamanian situation. At Mr. Abrams’s office at the State Department, I quickly learned that Mr. Poindexter’s trip had probably been for naught. His strong message would not be accompanied by any actions. The consensus was that so long as the United States was focused on fighting the Sandinistas and their communist allies in El Salvador and Guatemala, we could not afford to swing at another hornets’ nest.
Neither the Pentagon nor the C.I.A. showed any inclination to break with the general, and said as much. He could cause considerable embarrassment for his longtime patrons. Worse, he could disrupt the day-to-day business of our military stationed in Panama. The general was, as far as I know, on at least a couple of payrolls and was supposedly providing us intelligence, though during my time in Panama I didn’t see that he produced anything of real use.
And the accusations of narcotics trafficking? I do not recall that there was any mention of the Justice Department investigation. I suspect I didn’t bring it up because I didn’t want to. Given the power of those who were opposed to taking action against General Noriega, it would have seemed prudent to keep the investigation out of the discussion.
After the meeting, I returned to my post in Panama. Once there, I tried my best to ostracize General Noriega by keeping visiting dignitaries away from him. I hoped to signal American disapproval, to persuade his military colleagues to ditch him and to inspire the democratic opposition to regroup.
But after only two weeks, Adm. William J. Crowe Jr. undermined my intended message. During a visit to military units in Panama, he arranged to make a courtesy call on General Noriega. I sought to dissuade the admiral, citing the sitdown with Mr. Poindexter. When I suggested his “courtesy” might be misinterpreted, Admiral Crowe waved me away with a curt rejoinder: “Poindexter is only a vice admiral.”
Obviously, my efforts to isolate General Noriega did not prosper — but I did what I could. When Vernon Walters, a high-ranking C.I.A. official, sent the general a very cordial Christmas greeting via the diplomatic pouch, I managed to intercept and destroy the message (without Mr. Walters’s knowledge).
A few months later, in early 1986, my tour in Panama ended. Within a year, General Noriega was in full control of all the levers of power in Panama. The entire government would soon realize what some of us had felt from the beginning: General Noriega was a monster and a crook. He began rounding up and torturing opposition leaders, continued laundering drug money and threatened the prospects for an orderly transfer of the canal.
My day-to-day involvement with the “Noriega problem” ostensibly ended with my 1986 transfer to Honduras, but the feeling of futility persisted over the next couple of years.
Washington, having now decided that some sort of action must be taken against the dictator, pinned all its hopes on a renegade officer in the Panamanian military who was supposed to lead a coup — despite this individual’s clear lack of a following inside the military and among the civilian population.
In any case, our government soon threw away whatever leverage it might have had with General Noriega’s inner circle by announcing that the entire Panamanian leadership was now barred from entering the United States. Whatever slim chance we had of persuading a turncoat was dashed. (Shortly before the 1989 invasion, a group of second-level officers did try to oust General Noriega, but the attempt proved a failure, with the leaders summarily executed.)
The real trouble in the years leading up to the invasion was caused by the Justice Department investigation in which I had placed so much hope. The investigation backfired, wrecking the ability of our government to deal with General Noriega without the use of force or the loss of lives.
In February 1988, the public announcement of General Noriega’s indictments for drug trafficking made normal relations with Panama impossible. Beginning with my conversation with Mr. Meese in Mexico City and throughout the months and years that followed, again and again I was told that General Noriega’s indictment, once reached, would be sealed. By not making the indictment public, we could grab General Noriega the next time he came to the United States to see his Miami dentist or to gamble in Las Vegas, or even if he accepted an invitation to visit the C.I.A. or the Pentagon.
The last time I received this assurance, from someone at the National Security Council, was three days before the news media reported the indictments.
Justice’s failure to control its prosecutors set off the endgame. In the wake of the announcement, the State Department tried to persuade General Noriega to accept a plea and surrender to American justice. Failing that, it proposed, incredibly, that he relinquish power and go into retirement somewhere else, like Venezuela or Spain.
This drama took so long to unfold that, by the end of the year, I was serving under a new president, George H. W. Bush, as the chief Latin American adviser at the National Security Council. During my very brief time there, I learned that two key members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, had blocked a proposal to deal with General Noriega by snatching him. The operation wasn’t imminent, but the senators opposed even drawing up a plan for it on the curious grounds that any attempted clandestine operation against General Noriega might cause his death. I urged my immediate boss on the council, Brent Scowcroft, to reconsider the idea, but he told me it had already been vetoed.
By the fall of 1989, General Noriega forced the issue by having his forces begin harassing American civilians and members of the military in Panama. And so our military invaded in December and brought General Noriega, in chains, to trial in this country.
(Rumor has it that when American forces broke into General Noriega’s house in Panama City they found a freezer full of bundles of voodoo candles, each wrapped in a piece of paper with one of his enemies’ names on it, and that one of these candles bore my name. My efforts to retrieve the candle from the C.I.A., however, have been unavailing.)
DESPITE deserving credit for going after General Noriega, the Department of Justice is the chief culprit in this sorry story for allowing the indictments to be publicized. Although that decision led to the prosecution of a wanted felon, the success was accomplished at the cost of heavy collateral damage.
Almost everyone in government, however, shares some of the blame. America’s civilian and military intelligence agencies must be fingered for putting General Noriega on their payrolls, for being unable or unwilling to detect his criminal activities and for their resistance to ditching him once it became obvious that he was out of control.
Those running administration policy toward Latin America, myself included, failed to deal decisively with General Noriega or even to fashion a strategy to deal with him. That interagency meeting should have produced a plan. The Pentagon and the C.I.A. should have been brought to heel. The White House should not have allowed a couple of senators to determine how to handle the problem. And although the narcotics investigation at Justice was crucial, it should have been part of the plan, not independent of other considerations.
Of course, as with the present-day foreign policy issues that plague Washington, it is easy in retrospect to say that everyone should have acted with greater foresight, wisdom and determination.
As for what the United States should do about Mr. Noriega now that he has completed his prison term, my answer would be to pack him off to France, where he has been sentenced to a 10-year prison term. Mr. Noriega still has the potential to disrupt Panama’s highly charged political climate. Allowing the onetime dictator to return home would be one last way for this country to bungle its dealings with him.
Everett Ellis Briggs was the United States ambassador to Panama from 1982 to 1986, the ambassador to Honduras from 1986 to 1989, and a member of the National Security Council staff in 1989.