Prosecutors in the drug trial of former Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega are lining up potential witnesses to testify against him. Their testimony could leave the public gaping in disbelief about what Noriega allegedly got away with while under the protective wing of the U.S. government.
But what you won't hear during the trial is even worse. Sources in Panama tell us the prosecution is being very picky about who it puts on the witness stand. Our associate Dean Boyd has learned that many potential witnesses with intimate knowledge of the dictator's dirty work are not on the list to testify. Their stories could embarrass the United States and shed light on intelligence operations that the government would rather keep in the dark.
For example, don't look for Maj. Felipe Camargo on the stand. He was a ranking member of Noriega's intelligence force and is in jail in Panama awaiting trial on 18 counts of brutality. A former schoolmate of Camargo's told us that several months ago an intermediary for Camargo asked him to put Camargo in touch with U.S. authorities. Evidently Camargo hoped to cut a deal to testify against Noriega in return for a lighter sentence for himself, although plea bargaining is not allowed in Panama.
Camargo is one of the few people in Panama who could talk about a key assertion in the Noriega case -- that Cuban leader Fidel Castro mediated a drug dispute between Noriega and the Medellin drug cartel of Colombia in 1984. "Noriega would be very worried if Camargo testified," a leading Panamanian journalist told us. Nevertheless, the Justice Department has given Camargo the cold shoulder.
Why? Michael O'Kane, a Miami lawyer representing a client who was indicted with Noriega, told us the prosecutors "won't touch anyone that smacks of intelligence." Camargo has extensive ties to Cuban intelligence and reportedly knows about Noriega's cozy relationship with the CIA.
Another who won't be called to testify against Noriega is Mike Harari, a former Israeli intelligence agent. As a "businessman" in Panama, Harari forged ties with the CIA and probably knows more about Noriega's alleged crimes than anyone else, including information about drugs used as barter in the Nicaraguan contra resupply operation.
Harari was in Panama at the time of the U.S. invasion last December, but soon after, turned up safely in Israel. Informed sources in Panama told us that U.S. intelligence agents shipped Harari to Israel to get him out of the picture.
The Bush administration is doing everything it can to stay away from "people who know about contra drug connections," according to another Miami lawyer, John Mattes. Mattes represents a drug trafficker who has told a Senate subcommittee some details about the contra-drug connection.
Most of Noriega's closest officers are in jail in Panama with a wealth of information in their heads. But sources in Panama told us they have been given only token debriefings by U.S. authorities.
We asked Diane Cossin, executive assistant to the U.S. attorney who is prosecuting Noriega, about charges that the Justice Department is deliberately ignoring hot witnesses. She refused to comment "on any speculation by people not involved in the prosecution or the investigation."