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U.S. Weighed Indicting Entire Panama Military

February 07, 1988|DOYLE McMANUS and RONALD J. OSTROW | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department considered naming Panama's entire military establishment as "a criminal enterprise" in an indictment handed up last week, but it deleted the charge after the State Department objected, U.S. officials said Saturday.

The indictment, one of two that charged Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega with drug trafficking and other crimes, originally named the officers corps of the Panama Defense Forces in its racketeering charge, the officials said.

But the State Department pointed out that such a broad indictment would harm the Reagan Administration's basic foreign policy goal in Panama, which is to encourage the Defense Forces to get rid of Gen. Noriega, make internal reforms and turn power over to a civilian government--and the Justice Department backed down.

At a pre-indictment meeting last week, a State Department official pleaded with aides to Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III: "Don't blanket it."

"An indictment like that would unite the whole officers corps around Noriega, instead of encouraging them to ease him out," one official said.

Assistant Atty. Gen. William Weld, chief of the Justice Department's Criminal Division, ordered U.S. Attorney Leon B. Kellner in Miami to "tone down" the indictment last week, one official said.

In addition to the objections of the State Department, he said, some Justice Department officials feared the indictment might be "overreaching" if it named the entire Panamanian military.

Kellner, who prepared the racketeering indictment, insisted in a news conference Friday that this was a normal criminal indictment with no particular consideration for diplomatic niceties.

State Department officials also said they were given no direct say over what the indictments included. "We weren't even allowed to see them until the night before," one said.

Nevertheless, the officials' accounts of the talks between Justice and State make it clear that diplomatic concerns were taken into account as the indictments were prepared.

One official said the Justice Department had also considered naming several senior officers in the indictments, along with Noriega, but left them out for the same reasons. Other sources disputed this account, however.

A former Noriega aide who is now one of the principal witnesses against the general, Jose I. Blandon, has named at least 10 officers who he said were intimately involved in Noriega's drug trafficking and money laundering operations, officials said.

Those named by Blandon included Col. Marcos A. Justines, Noriega's chief of staff; Col. Lorenzo Purcell, chief of the air force, and Maj. Nivaldo Madrinan, director of the National Department of Investigation.

Panamanian officials and opposition figures asserted last week that the Administration first offered to drop all charges against Noriega if he agreed to step down and then offered to seal the indictments if he would leave office. U.S. officials denied both accounts.

The indictments, returned by grand juries in Miami and Tampa, Fla., marked the first time a top official of a government crucial to U.S. interests has been charged with a crime in American courts.

The indictments accused Noriega of using his position as Panama's de facto ruler to allow narcotics traffickers to ship massive amounts of cocaine and marijuana through his country to the United States and to help launder millions of dollars through Panama.

The indictments named 16 Noriega associates as part of a ring the Miami indictment said "included Panamanian military and civilian associates of Manuel Antonio Noriega and international drug traffickers."

But only one other military officer was charged: Maj. Luis del Cid, whom the Miami indictment accused of serving as a money courier between Noriega and drug lords.

The Reagan Administration has been urging Noriega to step down for several months, and has publicly urged the rest of the Panamanian officers corps, in barely veiled language, to ease the general out of office. But Noriega has refused all invitations to retire, and there has been no outward sign that his brother officers are on the point of rising against him.

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