WHEN Manuel Noriega's lawyers begin his defense today, they plan to call Reagan administration officials to support the general's claim that if he was a criminal he was only acting at Washington's behest.
But it's still uncertain if the defense would implicate Washington in specific criminal acts, perhaps involving the Iran-contra scandal.
Just before the defense took the stand, an attorney familiar with its strategy said that "some figures from the Reagan administration whose names you will recognize" would testify.
But he denied speculation that former White House aides Oliver North and John Poindexter - and perhaps even Ronald Reagan - would be called.
Noriega is charged with 10 counts of drug trafficking, money laundering, racketeering, and conspiracy. If convicted on all counts, the former Panamanian strongman faces 140 years in prison and fines exceeding $1 million.
Since Noriega's surrender on Jan. 3, 1990, to invading US troops, the defense has tried to emphasize the political aspects of the trial and to expand its scope to include Noriega's long relationship with Washington.
The public record shows Noriega long cooperated with the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other US intelligence organizations. The general claims US authorities asked him to allow drugs and drug money to flow through Panama so US agents could gather evidence against Colombian cocaine merchants.
Noriega, who is officially classified as a political prisoner, also wants to introduce evidence that he cooperated with the Reagan administration's secret efforts to supply Nicaragua's contras. However, US District Court Judge William Hoeveler turned down most of the defense's requests for access to classified government documents, saying, "This is a drug trial."
The Christmas recess turned into a six-week break due to the judge's illness, which gave the defense badly needed time to prepare. When the prosecution rested on Dec. 17 after three months of testimony, the defense was reeling.
The government had presented 46 witnesses to describe Panama's former strongman as a wily tactician who extended his control over Panama through his command of the intelligence branch of the military. According to witnesses' testimony, the general turned his country into a branch office of Colombia's cocaine smugglers in return for millions of dollars in bribes.
"The government has attempted to prove an overall conspiratorial agreement between General Noriega and members of the Medellin [Colombian cocaine] cartel," said lead prosecuting attorney Pat Sullivan.
Time after time, lead defense lawyer Frank Rubino protested that testimony did not relate to the specific charges of the indictment and should not be allowed, but Judge Hoeveler frequently sided with the prosecution and the testimony was heard.
Attorneys familiar with the prosecution estimate the government spent up to $40 million to pull its case together. On the other hand, the government froze most of Noriega's assets, thus limiting what he could spend on his defense. After long court battles, Noriega finally got access to $6 million.
Despite all the money the government has invested, its case is flawed. Most of its witnesses were convicted drug traffickers and money launderers who traded their testimony for cash and the promise of much shortened prison terms. Their tales were sometimes contradictory on important points and none ever directly tied Noriega to the specific acts of drug trafficking or money laundering mentioned in the indictment. There's no smoking gun.
"They [prosecutors] haven't been able to prove everything that they started out to prove, and they haven't been able to prove that Noriega was personally involved" in the crimes charged in the indictment, said Paul Rothstein, a criminal law professor at Georgetown University.
Yet lawyers following the trial believe that despite the flaws, the prosecution will win its case by weight of the endless hours of testimony presented against Noriega.