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Getting to Sack the General

3.

Suspicions that Noriega was involved in the drug trade went back as far as 1972, and by the late 1970s US officials had no doubt that he was responsible for helping to move large amounts of cocaine from Colombia to the US. In a report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released February 21, 1978, officials in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (the predecessor of the DEA) suggested assassinating Noriega, who was then chief of intelligence of the National Guard, because Noriega’s drug dealings were so extensive. The bureau’s director later told the New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh that he had personally turned down this “option.”7

In 1980, a US attorney in Miami informed a senior Justice Department official that US customs agents had “sufficient” evidence to indict Noriega for the illegal export of $2 million in arms. But the Carter administration did not want the case to go forward, especially at a time when Noriega had recently done the administration a favor by giving refuge to the deposed Shah of Iran.8

Recent testimony indicates that in 1979 Noriega made a deal to put his arrangements with the Colombian drug cartel on a regular basis. In testimony before a Senate subcommittee on February 11, 1988, Ramón Milian Rodriguez, a Cuban-born accountant who calls himself former chief financial manager for the drug cartel, now serving forty-three years in a US prison, described the deal he made with Noriega eleven years ago. The cartel wanted “complete security for the [drug] money from the point that it reached Panama,” “immediate credit for cash deposits,” and “access to Panamanian assets”—the use of “diplomatic passports, diplomatic pouches, and access to information.” In return, Noriega was to receive between I and 1.5 percent of all money delivered to Panama by the cartel.

By access to information, Milian Rodriguez meant: “We’re talking basically about the American agents abroad, we’re talking about the use of radio frequencies, Coast Guard schedules, [US] Navy schedules.” In 1982, for example, the Colombian cartel had the name of every American agent in Medellín, Colombia. At that time, Noriega was receiving about $10 million a month from the cartel. From 1979 to 1983, when he was arrested, Rodriguez said he paid the general—“we’re talking ballpark figures—between $320 and $350 million.”9 These estimates have not been confirmed; but that Milian Rodriguez testified openly before a Senate subcommittee may indicate that the cartel already considered Noriega expendable. The US officials I have talked to doubt that he would have talked had the cartel wanted him to keep quiet.

The close relationship between Noriega and US officials during this same period was described in detail by his former political adviser, José I. Blandón, until January 1988 Panama’s consul general in New York. Blandón’s charges that Noriega had cooperated closely with the National Security Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were confirmed to me by other US officials, notably Norman Bailey, a former staff member of the National Security Council under the Reagan administration. Moreover, articles published in The New York Times by Seymour Hersh in June 1986 cited statements by other US officials that supported Blandón’s testimony on the extent of Noriega’s connections with the drug cartel. Although Noriega was working for the CIA and giving information about lower-level drug dealers to the DEA, he was, as a high US official told me, a double agent several times over. He gave information and underground help to Fidel Castro. He supplied arms to the Marxist Salvadoran rebels and to the Salvadoran government, to the Sandinistas and to the contras. These dealings were further confirmed in testimony before a Senate subcommittee not only by Blandón, but also by Noriega’s pilot, Floyd Carlton, and by Leigh Ritch, a drug trafficker who worked with the Colombian cartel. At one point, as the former NSC official Norman Bailey told me, US officials found out he was monitoring US intelligence intercepts. He was told the United States would put out a contract for his life if he continued.

American intelligence officials saw Noriega’s close relations with Fidel Castro as useful. According to former members of the National Security Agency as reported in The New York Times, June 11, 1986, Noriega bought highly sensitive NSA documents from a US Army sergeant on duty in Panama in the mid-1970s and sent them to Cuba. But despite Noriega’s willingness to provide intelligence to the Cubans, the CIA thought of the general as an invaluable asset because of the information on Havana he provided the CIA. “The station chiefs loved him,” a former American ambassador recalled. “As far as they were concerned, the stuff that they were getting was more interesting than what the Cubans were getting from Noriega on us.”

Fidel Castro appears to have believed the opposite, and, as Blandón has testified, probably “feared that Noriega would be replaced in Panama.” In one instance, when the Colombian cartel became unhappy with Noriega’s performance, Castro may have saved Noriega’s life. According to Blandón, in 1984, after the PDF had raided a drug processing plant in Darién that had been set up by the drug cartel in southern Panama, Castro met with Noriega and Blandón in Havana. The raid, it seems, was a mistake, ordered while Noriega was out of the country. Castro told Noriega that the drug cartel wanted back the $5 million it had given to him and his associates as a bribe to allow the Darién plant to be used. He said Noriega had better return the $5 million, the machinery in the processing plant, the helicopters, and the planes that had been seized, and he urged that the twenty-three prisoners taken in the raid be returned to Colombia. Castro’s mediation was successful. Yet the raid was explained to the US Drug Enforcement Administration “as a case which showed General Noriega’s cooperation with the fight against drug trafficking.”10

Shortly after the Sandinista victory in 1979, according to Blandón, Noriega began to sell arms to the Salvadoran guerrillas who had built up a $100 million cash reserve with ransom money collected in kidnappings. Blandón claimed that he met at least fifteen times with Salvadoran guerrilla leaders between 1979 and 1983 to pass on their requests for weapons to Noriega. Finally, in 1987, Noriega concluded an agreement with the Soviet government to give landing rights to the Soviet airline Aeroflot and to create a company to provide dry docks for Soviet fishing boats in the Pacific and the Atlantic. So, in the words of Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations subcommittee conducting hearings on Panama, “while General Noriega is busy being a member of the CIA, working for them, working with the Sandinistas, working to supply the rebels in El Salvador, he is simultaneously drug trafficking and busy bringing in a new contract, which results in the KGB being active in Panama.”11

Although Panama had maintained close relations with the Sandinistas since the 1970s when General Torrijos gave moral and material support to the guerrillas, the testimony by Blandón and others before Senator Kerry’s subcommittee reveals that Noriega sold arms to the contras. Blandón also told stories of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North’s attempting to persuade Noriega to help the contras when they met on a yacht in Panama Bay in June 1985. This meeting has not been confirmed but it is of interest that Panama received increased economic aid shortly after it allegedly took place. As Blandón recounts it, “North particularly requested training assistance [for the contras] in bases located in Panama—something which General Noriega said yes to.” The reason for the request was that US funds could not be used for training contras at US bases in Panama. According to Blandón, the Panamanian bases were used.

In October 1985, Blandón testified, he was present at a second meeting, at which “General Noriega proposed to Colonel North that he could help the war in Nicaragua by sending elite units from Panama—these are special expert units in counterterrorism—and that they could conduct terrorist sabotage acts in Nicaragua.” North, according to Blandón, said he would speak to his superiors about the proposition. When he testified before the congressional committee investigating the Iran–contra affair North said he received such an offer—he did not name Noriega—and that Admiral Poindexter approved a plan to accept it; the plan was never implemented because North was dismissed.12

This meeting took place after Barletta was removed from the presidency, at a time when Panama was having financial difficulties, and Noriega and Blandón told North they needed financial help. Poindexter met with Noriega in December 1985 and told him bluntly, according to Blandón, that he should send some of his more corrupt officers abroad and bring back Barletta as president to deal with the worsening economic situation. The following year, though, Barletta remained out of office and Panama received, with US backing, full support for a refinancing program from the international lending agencies.13

Noriega’s dealings with foreign intelligence agencies seem likely to have included Mossad, the Israeli intelligence organization, through his close connection with an Israeli arms dealer, Mike Harare. Harare is a former senior agent of Mossad. Using the code name of Mikki, Harare commanded one of the assassination teams ordered to find and kill Palestinian terrorists in Europe after the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre. After six members of Harare’s team were arrested by Norwegian police in 1973 for killing a Moroccan they had mistaken for a Palestinian leader, Harare was sent to the Mossad bureau in Mexico City, which also has responsibility for Central America. According to the Miami Herald, he resigned from Mossad in the late 1970s and moved to Panama, where he became close to Torrijos and later to Noriega. He is also Panama’s honorary consul in Tel Aviv, where his family lives.

I was told both by a former US official and by a former high government official in Panama that Israel provided the Noriega regime with a deposit of $20 million in the National Bank of Panama in 1986 when Panama was faced with interest payments due on loans at the same time as it had to meet a public payroll. This money was not given as a formal loan, but as cash available to be used if needed. José Blandón also testified that Harare arranged for Noriega’s personal bodyguards to be trained by Israelis and that Harare worked with Noriega in obtaining arms for other countries by having Panama issue end-user certificates. In Blandón’s words, “this means that when you buy weapons in a given country, you have to say what those weapons are going to be used for ultimately so that they will not be sent to a country which is an enemy of the country issuing weapons. The name of Panama is usually used.” When Harare was asked about reports that Israel used Panama as a cover to obtain restricted US technology, he told a reporter from the Miami Herald: “If Israel ever needed something, like something for Dimona [Israel’s experimental nuclear reactor], it could be done.”14

  1. 7

    See report to the Senate of Senator Birch Bayh, Chairman, Select Committee on Intelligence (February 21, 1978); see also The Washington Post (February 21 and 22, 1978). The articles by Seymour Hersh appeared in The New York Times (June 12 and 13, 1986).

  2. 8

    The Washington Post (March 20, 1988).

  3. 9

    Citation from testimony of Ramón Milian Rodriguez.

  4. 10

    See Blandón’s testimony (February 9, 1988). Blandón also said that in October 1983 George Bush called Noriega and asked him to warn Castro not to interfere with the Grenada invasion. Blandón testified that Noriega did indeed call Castro just before the Grenada invasion, but Bush denies that he rang Noriega. On the Grenada episode, see Blandón’s testimony (February 10, 1988); see also Time (February 22, 1988) for Bush’s denial.

  5. 11

    See Blandón’s testimony and Senator Kerry’s response (February 9, 1988); see also the Miami Herald (January 30, 1988).

  6. 12

    Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran–Contra Affair (November 17, 1987), p. 76.

  7. 13

    See Blandón’s testimony (February 9, 1988); see also the Miami Herald (February 7, 1988).

  8. 14

    See the Miami Herald (January 19, 1988), international edition.

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