AT least part of the mix-up and confusion during the failed Panamanian coup attempt stemmed from a lack of clarity about what kind of role the United States might have played through covert action. If the US had tangibly supported the coup leaders in Panama, and dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega had been killed, would that have violated the integrity of US policy not to engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination?
It would have - according to the Senate Intelligence Committee in the summer of 1988 (before Noriega had fully achieved villain status). Senators warned the Reagan White House that any assistance to opposition groups overseas that led, even inadvertently, to the death of a state leader was prohibited.
This has since had a ``chilling effect'' on the CIA's capacity to perform, as Senate Intelligence chairman David Boren put it last week. US paralysis in Panama was merely proof.
Now it appears the Senate and President Bush will agree to the more explicit and practical covert-action policy CIA director William Webster wants. With proper safeguards, this is to the good.
The central tenet of the old policy remains: The US will not support or aid assassination attempts. Period.
But if in the support of a policy aimed at protecting important interests - both Washington's and those of the people in a region - the US finds reason to support actions such as coups, it will be free to offer guidance. This makes sense. The 1988 Senate warning did not. One can't unfailingly ``plan'' bloodless coups, though every effort must be made to minimize violence.
The changes requested by Mr. Webster expand current policy, which is now akin to telling the police that they must catch dangerous criminals, but if the criminal is killed in the process they'll be responsible for murder.
Of course, there still needs to be diligent protection against US abuse and aggression. President Gerald Ford first adopted the executive order in 1976, which became increasingly restrictive under Presidents Carter and Reagan, after 1960s CIA plots to kill foreign leaders such as Fidel Castro became widely known. The recent Iran-contra affair, in which US covert action was not reported to the Senate for nine months, further makes the point against executive abuse.
The White House and Senate should give Webster's CIA more latitude. On Panama, the CIA chief appears to be a fall guy for mistakes in Bush's inner-circle.