Uncertain Justice

Was Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega really a drug trafficker? Or is it possible he was set up by the U.S. government? Try asking a few dozen people who should know.

Armando says he escorted Winston on visits to the offices of senators Jesse Helms and John Kerry of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The ultraconservative Helms was a long-time opponent of the 1978 Panama Canal treaties, negotiated by Torrijos and Jimmy Carter, which gave Panama control of the Panama Canal in the year 2000.

"Helms would have done anything to derail the treaty and the Panamanian army, whether Noriega or anybody else was in charge," said Armando. It was a staffer in Helms's office, Armando said, who leaked to Winston and him a raw intelligence report -- information gathered from agents and news reports, but not confirmed -- listing corruption and drug-trafficking allegations against Noriega. The truth of the charges wasn't important, Armando recalled. He knew they were ammunition

Some weeks later, Armando told me, he attended a cocktail party inside the Beltway. Also present was a friend of his, Roberto Eisenmann, then publisher of the Panama City newspaper La Prensa. Under the general's rule, the newspaper's offices had been attacked by thugs, and publication was occasionally blocked. Eisenmann, fearing for his life, twice fled into voluntary exile. Anti-Torrijos, anti-military, and virulently anti-Noriega, he still ran La Prensa but was in and out of Panama and Miami, where for a time he was an executive of Dadeland Bank.

At that party Eisenmann introduced Armando to Seymour Hersh. The journalist remembers the event, as well as his reluctance to write about Noriega, a little-known dictator in a peaceful country. He was more interested in front-burner CIA operations in the Soviet Union and Middle East. But Armando persisted, telling Hersh he had an intelligence report linking Noriega to corruption and drug trafficking. Hersh checked the story and wrote a piece for the New York Times, saying Noriega was "extensively involved in illicit money laundering and drug activities and has provided Latin American guerrilla groups with arms.... has been tied to the ... killing of political opponent Hugo Spadafora and ... has been providing intelligence information simultaneously to Cuba and the United States."

But Hersh's editors at the paper sat on the story. Nobody, it seemed, was interested in Noriega.

Unfazed, Armando was determined that an anti-Noriega story be published in time for the general's June 11, 1986, arrival in Washington, where he was scheduled to deliver the commencement address at the Army's Inter-American Defense Board training course for Latin American military officers.

Armando came up with an old ruse: He decided to trick the New York Times into thinking it was about to be scooped on its own exclusive. "I decided to take the story to CBS," he said over lunch. He warned his CBS contact to act fast because the New York Times was ready to go with the story. "They liked it," he said. "Then I went back to the New York Times and said that I wasn't sure how, but that they were about to get scooped by CBS on their story. Both of them ended up using it right away, just as Noriega came to Washington."

The story ran June 12, 1986, on the front page of the Times.
I spoke with Hersh almost ten years later. He stands by his story, saying that confidential documents backed Armando's information. Journalist John Dinges, in his book Our Man in Panama, tried unsuccessfully under the Freedom of Information Act to locate the Defense Intelligence Agency and Central Intelligence Agency reports cited by Hersh in his story. "The DIA responded that no such document, as described in the Hersh article, could be found," Dinges wrote. The CIA provided only three sentences, which read in part, without sourcing, that "General Noriega has long participated in drug smuggling in Panama."

Armando, meanwhile, didn't stop with the first story. He used the Hersh article to lobby Congress and the Reagan administration. He kept pulling together selective information, using newspaper clippings from La Prensa, other newspapers, and testimony from Noriega opponents who had joined his cause.

Perhaps the most significant player in the anti-Noriega operation was Jose Blandon, who served as Panama's consul in New York until 1987, when Noriega fired him after he agreed to testify at a grand jury hearing in Miami that would eventually lead to the Miami drug indictment.

It was Blandon's testimony that finally tipped the scales with the Reagan administration on the subject of Noriega's alleged drug dealings. His grand jury testimony was followed by an appearance at hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Communications, whose chairman was Sen. John Kerry. There, Blandon presented a photo of himself with Noriega and Fidel Castro as proof that he'd accompanied Noriega to Havana. Blandon said the purpose of that 1984 visit was to ask Castro to mediate a dispute between Noriega and Colombian traffickers. Blandon claimed that Noriega had received five million dollars from the Medellin cartel for allowing them to build a cocaine-processing lab in the Darien jungle, just on the Panamanian side of the border with Colombia. Noriega's troops discovered the lab and forced its closure. Blandon said Noriega asked Castro to negotiate the release of 23 lab personnel, to facilitate the return of the five million dollars, and to deliver an apology to the cartel.

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