Noriega Challenges Skills of US Diplomats

As ex-strongman tries to negotiate asylum, Vatican says it won't give him to the US

DEPOSED Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega has proved a slippery opponent for President Bush right up to the end. Cornered in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City on Christmas Eve, the former strongman held few cards. His hosts seemed embarrassed at his presence, and the international community he looked to for refuge largely averted its eyes.

Yet General Noriega may be able to avoid trial in the United States, and instead join the world's small club of retired tyrants. As of this writing, his fate had not been decided.

``It's a matter for the lawyers and diplomats to work things out,'' said Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams on Dec. 26.

Much will depend on the US's real diplomatic goals. A US trial of Noriega, while undoubtedly satisfying to US officials, could be a security and legal nightmare. It would also spotlight the close relationship Noriega and US intelligence agencies once had - a friendship Bush might well not want emphasized.

Among other things, a National Security Council staff member from the Reagan years, Norman Bailey, has alleged that in the early 1980s the CIA and the Defense Department resisted attempts to end the then-close US relationship with Noriega. The intelligence provided by Noriega was judged too valuable to jeopardize the friendship.

At the time, top officials of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) were publicly praising Noriega for his help in controlling the cocaine trade, even while secret reports were beginning to label the Panamanian leader himself as a drug kingpin. There are hints that Noriega was serving as a back channel for communications between the United States and Fidel Castro of Cuba.

Throughout his career Noriega has apparently been very good at working both sides of the street. Jos'e Blandon, a former Panamanian diplomat, has testified before Congress that Noriega used to leak intelligence information to both sides in El Salvador's civil war.

Defense lawyers for Noriega in a US trial might well subpoena classified documents, claiming they were necessary to show tacit US support for their client's alleged activities. Similar tactics have proved effective for Iran-contra defendants.

``The trial of Noriega might be quite tricky,'' says John Roberts, dean of the De Paul University law school and a former congressional lawyer who helped draw up the Panama Canal treaties.

After a career of brutality, Noriega's fate thus now depends on his negotiating skills. His aim is almost surely to talk his way out of the Vatican Embassy and win safe passage to some country offering refuge.

He probably cannot stay where he is indefinitely. There is international legal precedent for fugitives hiding in embassies for extended periods of time - the US Embassy in Hungary sheltered a Hungarian Roman Catholic cardinal for 15 years after the 1956 uprising. But those cases revolve around people with a well-founded fear of political or religious persecution, the international legal definition of a refugee. Noriega does not qualify under this definition, say US analysts. Bush has branded him a common criminal.

``The Vatican has no obligation under international law to provide a sanctuary for Mr. Noriega,'' says Bruce Fein, a longtime Washington legal analyst.

On the other hand, the US has clear international legal obligation to respect the Vatican Embassy's integrity. Vatican officials have said they agreed to shelter Noriega as a way to stop the fighting in Panama.

Trying Noriega in Panama is one possible outcome of the standoff. Noriega might well prefer this to US trial, and the new Panamanian government has made it clear that they won't extradite Noriega to the US if he falls into their hands.

Such a trial could provide a great deal of legitimacy to the new Panamanian government, and help remove its ``Made in the USA'' label. But providing adequate security for such proceedings might well be impossible, given the number of Noriega loyalists that remain loose and armed in the country.

The best outcome from Noriega's point of view is likely to be exile in a third country. Such retirement can be achieved only with the agreement of the US.

For one thing, it is clear that the law in Panama is still the US military. Panama's President Endara may insist that Noriega will not be extradited, but US troops still ring the Vatican Embassy, and Defense Secretary Richard Cheney has said that if Noriega sets foot off the grounds, he will be arrested and shipped to Miami.

Even if the US agreed to respect Panamanian sovereignty and let Noriega out of the embassy, the deposed dictator would be vulnerable as he attempted to reach whatever country had agreed to take him in. In the past the US has used force to interdict suspects, such as accused Achille Lauro terrorists, in midair.

For Noriega, the primary question is ``how do I get out of the country?'' says Mr. Roberts.

As of this writing, Cuba was the only country that seemed amenable to housing Panama's former leader. Spain, a destination Noriega might well have preferred, said he would not be welcome.

US analysts note that it is unlikely Noriega would have sought refuge at the Vatican Embassy, however tired of running he was, without first making sure he would not be handed over to the Americans. And the Vatican seems to be insisting on the third-country exile option. An official in Rome said chances were ``very dim'' that he would be handed over to the US.

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