March 26, 1998
For more for than two years now I’ve been conversing with three very different men. One is probably the most respected federal judge in South Florida, the second a diplomat with a guilty conscience. And these two are linked by the story of the third, former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.
I wrote about Noriega in a book, America’s Prisoner, published last year. America’s Prisoner was really two books: the memoirs of a man universally reviled as a murderer and drug trafficker, and a brief investigation by me, in which I concluded there are substantial doubts about his guilt and the justification for bringing him back in chains at the end of the December 20, 1989, U.S. invasion of Panama. Reviews were mixed. Critics agreed with my doubts about the Noriega drug conviction, but most wondered why I would associate with a world-class sleaze.
As Latin America bureau chief for the New York daily Newsday, I had reported Noriega’s fall from proud military leader to prisoner of war. The process leading to his trial began with more than a year of hearings after his arrival in Miami on January 3, 1990. And I sat through almost every day of Noriega’s nine-month trial at the old downtown federal courthouse. Day after day a parade of witnesses, 26 of whom were convicted drug dealers, testified in return for plea bargains that allowed them to get out of jail and keep some of their drug profits.
But in the end, on April 9, 1992, the jury handed down a guilty verdict on eight of ten drug conspiracy counts. The panel had deliberated for several days and twice came back to the courtroom to tell U.S. District Court Judge William Hoeveler they were deadlocked. They reached a guilty verdict only after some members knelt to pray for the lone juror who had been holding out for acquittal.
The judge sentenced Noriega on July 10, 1992, to 40 years in jail. And then I began writing a book. I interviewed Noriega at least once a month for more than two years and spoke to him in long telephone interviews from his isolation cell — two overly air-conditioned, cinder-block rooms near the medical annex at the Federal Correctional Institution in South Dade.
“Jamas, jamas, jamas!” (“Never, never, never!”), he said when I asked if he’d ever dealt drugs or ordered or participated in murder. “I am innocent.”
I finished the book in 1996 and awaited final editing and publication. But I was still troubled by a feeling that the story hadn’t been fully told, that I had more reporting to do. That was what prompted me to call Judge Hoeveler on the off chance that he might agree to talk. And thus began my unusual conversation with the judge, a spirited, frank exchange in which he seemed to indicate he had his own concerns about justice in the Noriega case.
I remembered that the judge had noticed me sitting in his courtroom those many months. “Who’s the psychiatrist with the beard staring at me all the time?” Hoeveler had asked one of my journalist buddies.
“Just another newspaper reporter,” the friend said.
So when his secretary took my call and asked, “Does he know you?” I told her to say I was the one he thought looked like Sigmund Freud. To my surprise the judge not only agreed to see me, but invited me to his home. “I’m not sure what I can do for you,” he said, “but come on over.”
As I drove along a tree-lined street in Coral Gables, I sensed that something was different about Miami, something poignant. There was a chill in the air. I was shivering from the cold. Judge Hoeveler, dressed for the weather in a cardigan, greeted me at the door. Though stooped a bit, he was still several inches taller than I. His house, I noticed, was modest; I felt I was visiting the home of a college professor. On a bookshelf in one corner of his upstairs library were most of the Noriega books written to date. I told him my own was about to be published.
“It’s my hobby to collect them,” he said, “but I haven’t read one of them. I didn’t want to be influenced by any of them. Perhaps after the case is settled, I shall.” (With Noriega’s lower-court appeals exhausted, the case has been sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will decide next Wednesday, April 1, whether to hear arguments. The odds of a hearing are slim; the court reviews only about 70 of about 6000 petitions made each year. If the case is taken up, however, a key issue is expected to be whether the United States had the authority to seize a foreign head of state and put him on trial. Noriega was ostensibly head of just the Panamanian Defense Forces, but the United States and other countries recognized him as de facto leader of the country.)
“I hope, in the end, we’ll be able to say that justice was served,” Judge Hoeveler told me during our second meeting, this time in his judicial chambers. It seemed he was implying that he had doubts himself about whether Noriega is guilty as charged. “I have no comment” was all he would say when I asked him that question directly.
At that second meeting the judge asked me my opinion of the trial. I spoke bluntly. The proceedings had consisted of circumstantial evidence, I said. The government had coerced some witnesses and offered attractive plea bargains to others. “There was a trial hidden behind the trial,” I argued. And then I ran down the list of witnesses and discrepancies in their testimony. I spoke for a long time.
The judge responded on two tacks: First, he said, I hadn’t addressed the matter of the verdict. It had by no means been a foregone conclusion that the jury would convict. Then he switched gears and reminded me of allegations in the media that Noriega had ordered the murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora, his protege-turned-political opponent. In 1993 a Panamanian court had found Noriega guilty in absentia of Spadafora’s decapitation murder eight years earlier. Even if what you say is true, the judge seemed to suggest, there were other charges against him, including murder.
“But your honor,” I said, “there’s a question whether Noriega was involved in that murder.” The judge expressed skepticism, and I vowed to investigate.
I spoke to every source I could find for information about the murder of Spadafora, a colorful physician who had fought in Marxist guerrilla movements as an ideological mercenary in Angola and Nicaragua. Spadafora broke ranks with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua after they took power in 1979; he then joined other disillusioned former Sandinistas in fighting against them. By 1985 he was working with U.S.-supported Nicaraguan contras based in Costa Rica.
Spadafora owed his job in the Panamanian Health Ministry to Noriega but severed ties with him when Panama stopped providing a stipend to his mercenary contra brigade. At the time of his death, he was working with U.S. operatives close to Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, the Reagan administration point man on contra aid. Spadafora became outspoken in his charges that Noriega was corrupt and involved in drug trafficking. But there were charges that the contras were involved in drug trafficking as well.
The Panamanian murder verdict against Noriega came on the heels of the acquittal, for lack of evidence, of seven soldiers accused of Spadafora’s murder. (Their release sparked a series of demonstrations in Panama; eight weeks later the same evidence that had been deemed insufficient to convict them was used to prove Noriega’s guilt.) Much of what was reported about the case came from political gossip columns written by Panamanian journalist Guillermo Sanchez Borbón, who later collaborated with U.S. writer Richard Koster on a 1990 book about Noriega, In the Time of Tyrants. These two claimed it was Noriega who ordered the murder of Spadafora during a telephone call from France while on a two-week trip that also took him to England, Switzerland, and the United States. The call, they said, was intercepted and recorded by the supersecret National Security Agency, and they quoted the general as saying, “What do you do with a rabid dog … you cut off its head.”
But in separate interviews with me, neither man was able to identify a source for the telephone quote. Koster cursed me for even asking; Sanchez Borbon offered a more thoughtful answer. “It is a political book, not a historical book,” he said. “It has its inexactitudes.” He suggested that Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Seymour Hersh might have been the source.
Before contacting Hersh, I made a round of calls to other sources familiar with the Spadafora case. They included then-U.S. ambassador to Panama Everett Briggs; Donald Winters, the CIA station chief in Panama at the time; and Col. Al Cornell, the now-retired U.S. military attache stationed in Panama during the Noriega years.
Each said he’d read Sanchez Borbon’s columns only as politically driven gossip. Each said he’d seen no evidence that Noriega ordered or was responsible for Spadafora’s murder. (Cornell, in fact, said he’d conducted his own investigation of the killing. While he told me he thought Noriega’s military had its corrupt elements, he added that the country was actually one of the most progressive in terms of social programs, and a model for Latin America.) Nor had any of them reported suspicions to Washington. None of them had heard or seen a tape intercept of Noriega’s alleged phone conversation. I asked each if he would have been in the loop had there been such a tape. “Of course,” was the reply.
So I contacted Seymour Hersh, the renowned investigative journalist who first reported on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam for the New York Times. “I never heard of Sanchez Borbón, and who the fuck are you?” Hersh said when I called him. (I’d been apprised of Hersh’s engaging telephone manner.) He was more friendly in a subsequent call and said he’d never reported on the intercept in question. Then he suggested I speak with a well-placed Panamanian diplomat who had been the original source for Hersh’s influential June 1986 report about corruption in the Noriega regime.
I’ll call him Armando. We first met in Washington in 1989 while I was covering a debate at the Organization of American States about whether it should adopt economic sanctions against Panama, based on Noriega’s negation of May 7, 1989, national election results after it appeared his own candidate would not win. Armando was a friendly source who enjoyed banter with reporters and was known to provide objective insider information.
Early last year I located Armando again in Washington and he agreed to talk without ground rules, though he later asked me not to name him for fear that the imprisoned general would somehow retaliate. It was Armando — savvy, urbane, well-known in Washington diplomatic and political circles — who would turn inside-out everything I’d learned about the Noriega case.
“I don’t have any independent evidence about Noriega,” he said. “I don’t think he was dealing drugs. I don’t know that he killed Spadafora. I doubt very much the National Security Agency was monitoring him or even had the capacity to do it. It didn’t matter at the time. It was all a machination, a manipulation of the system.”
On a subfreezing day in Washington, we met for lunch, several weeks after I’d first been to Judge Hoeveler’s house. We walked against the wind along a downtown avenue and came to a stylish Italian grill. After the preliminaries, he shook his head and spoke directly to the point. “There was a conspiracy to get Noriega — not an American conspiracy, but a Panamanian conspiracy, and I was a part of it,” he said. “I’m amazed no one found me sooner. You’re the first.” Armando never explained afterward why he was willing to talk to me that day and tell me his role in Noriega’s downfall. I think he felt a mixture of pride and guilt.
Armando explained the “Panamanian conspiracy,” which he said began in the winter of 1985–86 and was orchestrated by members of the country’s oligarchy. For most of Panama’s history — from its independence in 1903 until a 1968 military coup led by Noriega’s mentor, Brig. Gen. Omar Torrijos — the country’s mostly white, wealthy upper class, known as the rabiblancos (Spanish for “white tails”) controlled politics and finance. The Veinte Familias, as they were known, owned everything the government did not, including banks, the chief industries, plantations, the tourism sector, and print and broadcast organizations.
After the 1968 military coup, the wealthy families lost political sway, though not their grip on the economy; by the late Seventies, they had begun to cultivate ties within Torrijos’s party and to reinsert themselves in the political landscape.
Torrijos died in 1981, setting the stage for three years of instability before elections were held in 1984. By then the all-powerful Panamanian Defense Forces, headed by Noriega, backed Nicolas Ardito Barletta, a former World Bank vice president who had close ties to the United States. His opponent was Arnulfo Arias, a two-time former president, as well as a Nazi sympathizer during World War II. In an election widely described as a fraudulent, Barletta was declared the winner. The Reagan administration uttered no complaints. Former president Jimmy Carter — who would criticize Noriega for election corruption in 1989 — attended Barletta’s inauguration.
But Barletta lost popular support when he announced severe tax hikes that resulted in riots across Panama. In September 1985 Spadafora was killed, and Barletta was caught between charges from the Spadafora family that Noriega had engineered the murder and a desire to save his presidency by not embarrassing the military. He failed on both counts. Meanwhile, Noriega, still touring in Europe, faced troubles of his own at this crucial time. Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, his second-in-command, was using Noriega’s absence to foment a mutiny against him. The general returned to Panama and swiftly removed Barletta from office, despite threats from U.S. officials about the consequences.
The president went into exile. So did Diaz Herrera, for his role in plotting mutiny. “Killing,” said CIA station chief Winters, “was not the m.o. for the Panamanian Defense Forces. They didn’t like violence.”
Next in line for the presidency was Vice President Eric Ardito Delvalle, an immensely wealthy industrialist. For more than a year, Delvalle supported Noriega, but the rabiblancos appealed to the new president’s traditional allegiance to them. Delvalle had family pressures to turn against Noriega as well. His daughter was married to the son of Gabriel Lewis Galindo, a former Panamanian ambassador to the United States. By then, Armando told me, Lewis had also joined the conspiracy against Noriega. (Lewis served as Panama’s foreign minister after the U.S. invasion; he died in 1996.)
The pressure on Delvalle to break with Noriega heightened after a February 4, 1988, announcement of a ten-count drug conspiracy indictment in Miami against the general. Two weeks later Delvalle met with Elliott Abrams, then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs. On February 25 Delvalle tried to oust Noriega in a nationally televised broadcast. Instead the president was himself forced into exile in Miami.
Against the backdrop of these years, Armando was working as a diplomat in Washington. His official status prevented him from acting as a foreign lobbyist, much less working overtly against Noriega in the United States. But he was active behind the scenes. His first opportunity came three months after Spadafora’s murder, when Winston Spadafora, the dead man’s brother, traveled to Washington to lobby Congress for Noriega’s ouster. He accused Noriega of having ordered the murder; he used Sanchez Borbon’s columns as his source. But Winston spoke no English and didn’t know Washington. A mutual friend asked Armando to help.
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.
But Blandón’s version was discredited by investigators. The photograph with Castro was taken at a different, purely ceremonial event. The DEA agent in charge of Panama operations, James Bramble, told colleagues he had no reason to believe Noriega even knew about construction of the lab. Further investigation proved that another member of the Panamanian military, Col. Julian Melo, had received the bribe and that Noriega’s high command had thrown Melo out of the army as a result. Nonetheless the prosecution team flew Melo to Miami during Noriega’s trial and tried to pressure him into testifying to Blandon’s version of the story. He refused.
Until Blandon began talking, the Justice Department had no witness, only unconfirmed rumors about Noriega and drug trafficking. “Prior to Blandon, had you asked people with access, ‘Did you think Noriega was involved with drug trafficking?’ none of the people would have said yes,” said Elliott Abrams in a telephone interview shortly after my lunch with Armando.
Abrams, who pleaded guilty in 1991 to lying to Congress about illegal funding of the Nicaraguan contras, said he couldn’t remember the specific charges against Noriega, but he remained adamant about Blandon’s importance to the case. “I think the difference was Blandon,” he said. “He came forward.”
But Abrams did not recall that Blandon had been discredited by both the prosecution and defense teams during Noriega’s trial. Originally a prosecution witness, Blandon caused a furor when he leaked copies of audiotapes he said lead prosecutor Michael “Pat” Sullivan had given him to translate. Those tapes consisted of wiretapped phone conversations between Noriega and his attorneys in which they discussed defense strategies. Blandon surreptitiously copied the tapes, which he then indiscreetly circulated within the Panamanian government and turned over to a CNN reporter. CNN broadcast the tapes, despite a gag order from Judge Hoeveler. In the days that followed, the U.S. Attorney’s Office threatened to indict Blandon for stealing the tapes, and the former consul tried to protect himself by offering to provide information to Noreiga’s lawyers about prosecution misconduct.
But Armando knew precisely what role Blandon played: He too was a member of the conspiracy, meeting as often as he could with Noriega enemies or talking with them by phone. “I don’t know if the drug charges were true or not,” Armando said over lunch, referring to Blandon’s original testimony before the Miami grand jury. “But it was quite effective.”
By this time, Armando and I were finishing our lunch. We paid the tab, put on our coats and scarves, and headed back into the winter wind. I asked Armando if he was concerned about the ethics of fabricating a case based on innuendo: “Do you have any information at all about whether Noriega really did these things?”
“No, not at all,” Armando replied. “But that wasn’t the point. I thought it served a higher good — to get him out any way we could. He was no saint. He was bad for Panama.”
Standing with his back to the wind as we waited for a traffic signal, he paused for a moment. “The thing that still gets me is that I was able to do this…. One individual from a tiny little country … can influence, change, really control the policy of the greatest nation in history,” he said. “It’s a sobering, a frightening thought.”
I asked him if he felt guilty about helping to provoke an invasion.
“Well, look,” he answered, “we set the thing in motion, and maybe it did get out of control a bit, but we never intended them to invade Panama. We never wanted that. It was a terrible thing.
“And while you may not go along with this,” he continued, “I was shocked at how absolutely easy it is to manipulate the news media. It was so simple, so elementary! It doesn’t reflect well on your craft. You may say that it was lies. But it wasn’t that. It was willingness on their part to believe. It was convenient not to question.”
For the time he lasted on the prosecution’s side, Blandon was an influential witness. His loss forced the prosecutors to look elsewhere to bolster their case. And some of the characters they turned up were truly unsavory.
For example, a major story I wrote for Newsday at the time involved a plea bargain made with Carlos Lehder Rivas, the most prominent Colombian cocaine trafficker ever imprisoned in the United States. In exchange for his testimony against Noriega, he was allowed to transfer from the maximum-security Marion prison in Illinois to a lower-security jail with a new identity. He was also given hope of changing his sentence of life without parole.
Other issues had also begun to surface in news stories about the trial, though Judge Hoeveler refused to allow their introduction into the proceedings. First came new details about the full extent of Noriega’s own cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration in its fight against the Colombian cartels. Finally, and much more sinister, came leaks about connections between drug traffickers — the very witnesses being granted suspended or reduced sentences in exchange for testimony against him — and their work flying supplies to U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contras.
One such Panamanian pilot, Floyd Carlton Caceres — who now lives somewhere in the United States under the federal witness protection program — had been the linchpin for the original Miami indictment against Noriega. But at trial Carlton faltered under cross-examination. He first claimed that Noriega had agreed to accept $100,000 for allowing him to fly four loads of cocaine from Colombia to Panama. But under attack from Noriega’s attorney, he admitted he’d received no protection, had never told Noriega about the shipments, and that, in fact, Panamanian soldiers had arrested him on his final flight.
Carlton’s contra ties, meanwhile, had been disclosed in Washington at Kerry’s Senate subcommittee hearings. But the details — including Carlton’s friendship with Spadafora and his work as a pilot with a Miami-based contra supply airline, DIACSA, which had received two State Department contracts totaling $41,130 to fly aid to contras — were deemed inadmissible by Hoeveler. Politics, he said, was not relevant in a drug indictment. When Noriega’s attorney hit Carlton with a series of questions about his gun-flying activities and asked if Oliver North was involved, the judge sustained prosecution objections. Hoeveler grew testy as lead defense attorney Frank Rubino persisted. “Just stay away from it,” the judge snapped.
And then there were charges — which came out only after the trial — that the U.S. government had made deals with the very Colombian cartels it had sworn publicly to destroy. One of Carlton’s associates was a former Panamanian diplomat and businessman named Ricardo Bilonick, who operated IN air, a private-plane dealership based at Panama City’s Paitilla Airport. Bilonick admitted as part of a plea bargain that his planes carried drugs through Panama to the United States. What made Bilonick’s testimony so damaging to Noriega was that, unlike the other drug dealers, he was not in jail. He turned himself in for prosecution, saying at the time that he wanted to clear his guilty conscience.
It wasn’t until two years after Noriega’s conviction that a letter surfaced, written to Miami prosecutors by a lawyer for the Cali cartel. The letter detailed a deal between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the cartel whereby Bilonick would be offered up as a “dynamite witness” against Noriega — who faced charges of conspiring with members of the rival Medellin cartel — in exchange for a plea bargain in the case of Cali cartel leader Luis Santacruz “Lucho” Echeverri, captured in Miami in a separate drug case. For Bilonick’s part in bringing about a leniency deal, the cartel also paid him $1.25 million — an offer he probably couldn’t refuse. The cartel had only one condition, wrote Echeverri’s lawyer, Joel Rosenthal, in the letter to the Miami prosecutors. “I cannot stress to you how critical it is to this agreement that my client’s role and identity be kept secret…. The appearance will be that you have made a deal with the Cali cartel to secure the cooperation and specific testimony of a witness against the Medellin cartel.”
And thus slowly unfolded one part of a pattern of the trial outside the trial. Even my official sources, DEA personnel among them, began to tell me something was wrong with the Noriega prosecution.
At a journalism seminar less than a year after the U.S. invasion of Panama, I met Gen. Fred Woerner, retired head of the Panama-based U.S. Southern Command. I asked him why the United States had launched its invasion. He said President Bush needed the invasion to boost approval ratings, especially after having been so completely ineffective in dealing with Noriega. The administration had failed to force the general’s ouster; Noriega walked away from negotiations with the State Department to leave the country; he had outmaneuvered the Americans’ ten-million-dollar investment in opposition candidates for the 1989 Panamanian presidential elections by ignoring the ballot results; finally, he had narrowly escaped an October 1989 coup attempt when Gen. Colin Powell, on his first day as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to promise support to the coup plotters. Noriega just kept thumbing his nose at Bush.
“It was political, the wimp factor,” said Woerner, who resigned from the army in September 1989 rather than lead the invasion four months later.
Donald Winters, the CIA station chief in Panama during Noriega’s tenure, told me in an interview last week that the Bush administration had turned down his proposal to avert an invasion and use his personal relationship to negotiate with the Panamanian leader. “I was asked [by superiors at the CIA] when I was in London if I would be available to go to Panama and make one last effort to talk him into exile,” Winters said. But then, he said, an interagency squabble erupted, and the State Department decided to send its own negotiator. “If I had gone — you sit up all night with him and keep talking and lay the cards on the table and tell him the jig is up — I think we might have had a chance,” Winter said.
Since my first visit with Judge Hoeveler, I’ve spoken to at least four dozen other sources, both in Panama and the United States. They include former DEA officials, CIA agents, U.S. military officers, an official at the Defense Intelligence Agency, even a member of Mossad who monitored the Israeli spy agency’s operations in Panama. “We do not believe Noriega did any of this drug-dealing,” the Israeli source said.
I went back to see Judge Hoeveler in his chambers last month to tell him the results of my inquiries. He said he’d bought my book and put it on the shelf with the others. He still hadn’t read any of them.
I told him about my conversations with Armando and his discussion of the conspiracy with Blandon. “Ugh, Blandon,” the judge responded. He remembered the case of the purloined tapes and his unprecedented decision to use judicial prior restraint, that is, impeding the publication of news on legal grounds. “It’s ironic, because the record will show that I’m greatly interested in the First Amendment,” Hoeveler said. “I think my ruling in that case will be considered on narrow grounds and hopefully will not be used as a precedent.”
I told the judge that I was turning up less and less support for the Noriega conviction, and I broached the subject of English jurisprudence and “unsafe” convictions, an argument used to free some of those convicted of being terrorists with the Irish Republican Army. Under appeal, English courts have ruled in favor of convicted terrorists because of widespread doubt that a guilty verdict was accurate.
“I think perhaps you’re becoming somewhat of an advocate,” Hoeveler told me, “scratching at the case, perhaps to see what just isn’t there.
“The jury saw a very strong case presented by the government,” he added. “And they had to deal with what they had to deal with. I do think [defense attorney] Rubino did a fine job. I’m not sure anyone could have won that case.”
His own role, he explained, had been that of an “umpire” and did not include making decisions about political issues. There had been an indictment, he said, and his job was to make sure that indictment was presented fairly to the jury. In his pretrial rulings Hoeveler had noted, and continues to argue, that political overtones did not exempt Noriega from facing criminal drug conspiracy charges. “I was not interested in the political aspects of the case,” he told me.
He remains, however, intensely curious about the outcome of a possible Supreme Court hearing, in which the issue of jurisdiction — whether the United States had the right to try Noriega in the first place — should loom large. “I think jurisdiction will be the most important question if the court decides to hear the case,” Hoeveler said.
Whether or not the Supreme Court hears the case, the judge added, there is one more avenue open to Noriega. Under federal sentencing guidelines, his attorneys can request a sentence reduction. The judge gave no indication on how he might rule on reducing Noriega’s sentence. “After all of that takes place,” the judge said, “I think perhaps you and I should sit down again and talk some more.”
With that, the judge had one final question. “How is Noriega, by the way?” he asked.
“He faces his time like a soldier,” I replied.
It had been four months since I’d last seen Noriega. Then out of the blue, he called me last week to tell me that a producer from cable television’s History Channel had asked for an interview. Noriega was worried because the producer was working with Richard Koster, the writer whose version of events in the Spadafora case was influential in building a case against him, a version that was later discredited. The producer was also talking to other opponents, including Guillermo Endara, who was sworn in as president on a U.S. military base after the invasion. “I want them to hear from an independent point of view, like yours,” the general said. “You’re not pro-Noriega. You’ve done your own investigation without me and come to your own conclusions. That is all I ask.”
I wasn’t convinced that a History Channel report — narrated by Charlton Heston, no less — would do much to change received wisdom: that Noriega was the devil, and the devil had gotten his due. For me there were too many unanswered questions about the trial and about U.S. motives and actions, though some things were clear: The United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the 1989 invasion of Panama. Twenty-six Americans and no one knows how many Panamanians died. (Estimates of Panamanian dead range from 246, according to U.S. figures, to human rights reports of more than 2000. The figure published most recently in Panama is 500.)
Still, Noriega’s story doesn’t go away. A Los Angeles television producer recently contacted me, saying he plans to start a publicity blitz to have the general’s case reopened. There have been movie proposals and plays, and now author and anti-Vietnam War activist David Harris is writing a book of his own about events leading up to the invasion.
There were questions I wanted to ask Noriega. I thought about asking if he would agree to protect Armando so they might sit down and talk. I didn’t. And I wanted to ask the judge to meet with them both someday, to see if the words would make any more sense that way. I didn’t. A deposed general, a judge, a diplomat — all reciting a version of the truth. I can see them together: Hoeveler pondering questions he has trained himself not to ask; Armando hoarding the conceit of a victory in relative anonymity and wondering to what degree he helped spur the U.S. invasion; and Noriega, seemingly powerless to do anything in his own defense.