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Noriega : 1988-89

In February 1988, Panamanian strongman, Manuel Noriega, was indicted ina federal court in Florida on drug trafficking charges. In March, a coupat tempt against him failed. In April, President Reagan signed a covert action finding authorizing the Agency to provide certain assistance to Panamanian exiles who planned to challenge Noriega in the presidential elections the following year. In May, a second finding was signed authorizing a political action campaign inside Panama that included propaganda and non-lethal support to the opposition forces.

The objective was to get Noriega to step down voluntarily and leave Panama. After Noriega adamantly rejected the idea when it was proposed by State Department officials, however, Reagan signed a third finding, this one authorizing CIA to undertake activities to bring about the removal of Noriega from power, including working with disaffected members of the Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) to bring about his removal by force if necessary. While the finding specifically directed that the Agency not assist in any effort to assassinate Noriega, it recognized that the operation could produce such an outcome.

Although the SSCI had supported the two previous findings, it balked at the third one and, by a vote of 13 to 1, authorized its chairman, David Boren, to send a letter to the president asking that it be withdrawn. Although the administration believed the committee was overreacting, it sent a letter to the committees saying that if it learned that groups the Agency was working with planned to assassinate Noriega, it would inform the Panamanian leader. The administration also increased the amount of nonlethal aid being furnished under the May 1988 finding.

In May 1989, the Panamanian presidential election took place, and despite widespread reports of fraud and voting irregularities, the opposition party claimed victory. But Noriega remained in control and refused the public demands of President George H.W. Bush and other world leaders to step aside, leading Bush to publicly encourage the PDF to organize a coup. Noriega's refusal to step down after the election also led the Bush administration to look more closely at identifying elements of the PDF it could work with to remove Noriega from power.

Advised by DCI Webster of the Reagan administration's earlier commitment to the SSCI to inform Noriega if it became aware of assassination attempts against him, Bush wrote a letter to the committee saying that, whatever the earlier understandings might have been, they no longer pertained. According to Webster, the SSCI immediately backed off, saying that in any event it had never been its intention to obligate the administration to notify Noriega.

Webster also took the occasion to ask the Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice to provide a legal opinion on the kinds of activities that would violate the ban on assassination contained in E.O. 12333 and those that would not. Although neither intelligence committee gave its unqualified endorsement to the Justice opinion when it was presented to them in the late summer of 1989, it did represent the first authoritative legal interpretation of the assassination ban to that point.

In early October 1989, a group of PDF officers (who had specifically rejected help from CIA) attempted a coup against Noriega. He managed to call for help, however, and was able to escape in the fighting that ensued. In a rage, he ordered the immediate execution of the PDF officers involved. The ensuing barrage of congressional criticism faulting the administration for its failure to support the coup plotters, prompted National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, appearing on a Sunday morning talk show, to point to the SSCI's opposition as a key factor in stopping the administration "from doing what they're now saying we should have done." Appearing separately on the same program, Boren countered that the committee had given the administration "all the money and authority" it had sought for Panama. Scowcroft categorically denied this and shot back that not only the committee's concerns about assassination but also its funding cuts to the covert action program for working with the PDF had hampered the administration's efforts in Panama. Reportedly, the personal intervention of Bush himself was required to restore calm.

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Page last modified: 22-11-2013 00:03:32 ZULU