MIAMI — Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, on trial on racketeering and drug-smuggling charges, gave limited assistance over a five-year period to U.S. drug-enforcement officials who were trying to track the flow of illicit narcotics profits through Panama, government sources acknowledged Sunday.
Their acknowledgment follows revelations that Noriega participated in an until-now secret U.S. anti-drug operation known as Operation Negocio in Panama between 1983 and 1987.
The information is contained in a file that three Drug Enforcement Administration agents, all formerly based in Panama, revealed to Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael P. Sullivan and other prosecutors last weekend in a meeting in Miami.
As required by law, the file is being turned over to Noriega's defense attorneys, who are scheduled to begin presenting their case to jurors early this week. The information could lend some credence to defense claims that Noriega was only working with U.S. anti-drug efforts and that his involvement in them was even more extensive than previously believed.
Officials of the Justice Department long have conceded that the deposed Panamanian dictator was a valuable source of intelligence for the United States before they began amassing hard evidence of his alleged drug crimes, a process that resulted in his federal indictment in Florida in February, 1988.
U.S. officials filed court papers earlier this year, in fact, stating that the CIA and Army intelligence had paid Noriega $320,000 over a 25-year period during his rise through the Panamanian military intelligence system to his position as iron-fisted ruler of his nation.
However, Noriega's lawyers have claimed that the figures are incomplete and insist that their client received at least $10 million from the CIA. Now the revelation of the previously unknown Operation Negocio lends credence to their claims that Noriega's cooperation with U.S. officials was more widespread than previously believed.
The existence of Negocio, meaning "business" in Spanish, was first reported by Newsday in its Sunday editions. But government sources disputed the newspaper's contention that the disclosure could seriously undermine the federal case against Noriega.
"It's true we only learned of this program a week ago," one government attorney said. "But Noriega's cooperation was limited and was tailored to his own purposes."
Under Operation Negocio, the Panama Defense Forces agreed to provide DEA agents in Panama with the identity of pilots and planes flying narcotics money into Panama from 1983 to 1987, the sources said.
The existence of Operation Negocio came to light, the government sources said, when federal prosecutors recently interviewed three DEA agents who had once served in Panama and were listed as potential witnesses by defense attorneys. Sources said that the prosecution had not uncovered evidence of the program during searches of DEA files in Washington over the last two to three years.
Myles Malman, an associate prosecutor in the Noriega case, declined to comment on the matter, as did Jon May, a member of Noriega's defense team.
One source said that former DEA Administrator Jack Lawn was unfamiliar with the program. It was previously disclosed, however, that Lawn had sent Noriega a written commendation in the mid-1980s.
The defense hopes to persuade the jury to accept its portrayal of Noriega as a cooperative foreign leader rather than the prosecution's portrayal of him as a greedy dictator who scoffed at drug laws and accepted payoffs to let U.S.-bound cocaine shipments pass through his country.
There has been voluminous testimony that from 1982 to 1986 Noriega took millions of dollars in payoffs from Colombian drug barons, occasionally identifying a "small fish" for U.S. drug agents.
For example, the Panamanian military leader identified a Cuban pilot named Ramon Miliano Rodriguez who was ferrying drug profits, government sources said. Rodriguez was arrested by U.S. authorities when he landed in Florida in 1984.
Similarly, a suspect named Oscar Cardona Donato was arrested in Panama in June, 1984, in connection with illegal drug-money flights by Panama-based Inair Airlines and was sent to Miami for prosecution, the sources said.
"Noriega wanted to give the appearance of being cooperative," a federal attorney said. "But it's significant that he never blew the whistle on a big-time offender like Ricardo Bilonick."
Bilonick, a confessed cocaine distributor and former associate of Noriega, testified under terms of a plea agreement that as part owner of Inair Airlines he knew that Noriega received $500,000 per drug flight to the United States.
Prosecutors are expected to conclude their three-month-long case today and defense attorneys will begin their side of the trial. If convicted on all charges, Noriega faces a maximum sentence of 140 years in prison and more than $1 million in fines.