WASHINGTON — The Reagan Administration and Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega have agreed on "the outlines of a deal" under which Noriega would give up power but stay in Panama for a face-saving interval and escape extradition to the United States, senior Administration officials said Thursday.
The compromise, negotiated after months of U.S. economic pressure on Gen. Noriega's regime, would allow him to make what one official called "a dignified exit" while achieving the Administration's aim of ousting the military chief from power.
It would also represent a significant retreat for the Administration from its initial demands that Noriega leave office immediately. The Panamanian strongman has been indicted on drug-trafficking charges by two federal grand juries.
Deal Not Yet Sealed
A senior U.S. official warned, however, that the deal has not yet been sealed.
"There are the outlines of a deal, but only if each side makes some decisions that would be a part of it," the official said.
"There is not yet an agreement in principle. There are some significant decisions that the President and (Secretary of State George P. Shultz) need to make. Noriega understands our conditions and we understand his. For there to be an agreement, there need to be compromises on both sides--and it is not clear yet that the necessary compromises are forthcoming."
He said reports that Noriega has already agreed to go into exile in the Dominican Republic are premature.
"The question of where he will go is completely unsettled," the official said. "There's absolutely no agreement on the Dominican Republic."
The proposed deal also calls for the United States to forgo pursuing the outstanding drug-trafficking charges, officials said. Shultz has suggested that President Reagan consider dropping the indictments against Noriega--or, at least, making a pledge not to pursue his extradition--as the price of the strongman's exit from Panama.
But the extradition issue remains a possible sticking point, officials said. The Justice Department has angrily objected to all suggestions of Noriega's avoiding prosecution.
"We are not trying and have never been trying to achieve the humiliation of Gen. Noriega, but rather his departure--so any agreement is going to have to allow him, as well as the U.S. government, a dignified outcome," one official said.
As a result, officials said, the Administration has quietly dropped its insistence that Noriega leave Panama immediately, and tentatively accepted a formula under which he could stay in the country several weeks or months after retiring as commander of the Panama Defense Forces.
U.S. officials have said that any agreement with Noriega would be designed to return the country to constitutional democracy and remove the military from power.
It is unclear when the United States would lift its economic sanctions against Panama, and whether that move would be linked to Noriega's retirement from power or his physical departure from the country.
The tentative agreement was reached after a week of secret negotiations in Panama between Noriega and Michael G. Kozak, deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin America.
Exiled leaders of Panama's opposition, who helped the United States launch the campaign of economic pressure on Noriega, were apparently kept in the dark on the proposed compromise. Opposition leader Gabriel Lewis, a former Panamanian ambassador in Washington, said he could not comment on the reported agreement because "the United States has kept us ignorant of what they were doing."
Lewis said that over the past week, U.S. officials have refused to discuss Kozak's trip to Panama "with me or with any member of the opposition. Consequently, we are not responsible for the outcome. It's impossible for us to comment, since we don't know what's going on. I have called, and they have avoided giving us any explanations."
Lewis said opposition leaders believe that any deal with Noriega should include not only arrangements for his departure, but also "an agreement on the role of other military leaders--some of them unjustly fired by Noriega, and others who should relinquish power because of their criminal background."
As recently as Wednesday, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said the Administration is sticking to its demand that Noriega leave Panama immediately. "It's nearly inconceivable that you could come to any sort of an arrangement that would leave a former dictator in place," he said.
But the White House backed away from that position on Thursday, saying the issue of when Noriega left the country is entirely negotiable.
"Our policy is (that) he must go. We would prefer that he leave the country. But I can't fine-tune it any more than that. The rest has to be left to negotiations," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.