WASHINGTON — The Justice Department's extraordinary and politically sensitive decision to seek criminal drug-trafficking indictments against Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega was not well thought out and was never submitted to President Reagan or White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. for their approval, Administration officials said Wednesday.
The indictments have become a stumbling block to U.S. efforts to oust Noriega, who remains out of the reach of U.S. law as long as he stays in Panama. And the Administration's willingness now to drop the indictments as part of a deal to force him out of power has made it possible for Democrats to charge the Administration with being soft on drug dealers.
Faced with this dilemma and receiving criticism from all sides, the Administration officials say that a more thorough analysis of how to proceed against Noriega might have prevented the predicament.
Justice Department officials consulted with officials of the State and Defense departments and the White House National Security Council staff before the indictments were returned in February, but neither Reagan nor Baker signed off on the action, a senior Administration official said.
Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III approved the indictment after being briefed on the evidence by Leon Kellner, the U.S. attorney in Miami, and William F. Weld, a former assistant attorney general who headed the Justice Department's criminal division, sources said.
Even though it posed a sensitive foreign policy issue, Meese apparently was the only Cabinet-level official to approve indicting Noriega. Although Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, Reagan's national security adviser, is generally consulted on foreign policy, the issue of the Noriega indictments was not submitted for his approval, according to Administration sources.
'Too Sensitive' to Comment
Powell declined to comment on the matter, saying: "I just can't go into details on any of this. It's just too sensitive." Meese, through a spokesman, declined to comment on whether he raised the issue with the President.
Although Baker has publicly defended the indictments as a tool for destabilizing Noriega, he is known to be deeply disturbed that such a crucial decision, involving the leader of a foreign country and a potentially explosive political issue, was made without more thorough discussion at the presidential level and specific approval by the President.
A State Department official familiar with discussions that led to an Administration go-ahead on the indictments said Administration officials never thought through all the possible repercussions, including implications on foreign policy "and the consequences it would mean for a friendly foreign country."
Because Noriega has refused to step down in the face of the criminal charges, the United States has imposed economic sanctions on the country that have damaged its economy, forced bank closings and kept many Panamanians from receiving paychecks.
A senior White House official, troubled that the indictments have complicated efforts to oust Noriega, said that while indictments should be returned if justified, "it is a difficult course to follow . . . in the case of Panama" because Noriega cannot be extradited from his home country.
"The only way you can get Noriega," he said, "is if he's traveling outside Panama in a country that does have a treaty that permits us to do that."
The official called indicting foreign leaders "a fairly novel concept" and added: "I'm not being critical of it, I'm simply saying it's a complicated situation. When we're going to indict world leaders, I hope we know about it in advance."
Officials responsible for the Noriega indictment apparently never thoroughly discussed whether the indictments should have been kept secret to prevent them from becoming a public issue or whether some option other than indictments should have been followed.
If the matter had been presented to the President, one official said, Reagan might have approved the indictments but suggested that they be sealed and then used quietly as leverage against Noriega. Noriega could have been told that, "if he sticks his nose out of Panama, we're going to arrest him and bring him back here for trial."
"But instead," the official said, what happened is "it became a highly celebrated public issue." Members of Congress calling for tougher action against drugs have taken a public stand against using the charges as a bargaining chip. And in Panama, Noriega has portrayed the action against him as an attack on Panamanian sovereignty.
"I'm not prepared to say what we would have done or what the White House would have done if we were faced with that issue to begin with," the official said. "It was a full-blown issue before we really were in a position to address it."