THE LAWYER whomGen. Manuel Noriega has chosen to defend him, Frank Rubino, is by all accounts experienced and skilled, but he is also expensive. At $200 to $300 an hour, he estimates that the general's drug defense could cost as much as $3 million. Gen. Noriega has that kind of money in various bank accounts around the world, and he is perfectly willing to spend it for Mr. Rubino's services. But because the government has frozen all his assets, the money is not available to pay for his defense.

The general is not the only drug defendant in this bind. Federal law allows for confiscation of all assets that might be the fruit of a criminal enterprise, and in order to protect assets until a trial is completed, the government routinely places liens on real estate, bank accounts and the like. This has made it almost impossible for defendants in big narcotics cases to hire lawyers of their own choosing, because they can't pay. They wind up being represented by court-appointed lawyers or public defenders who are not necessarily specialists in this kind of criminal litigation. The defense bar has vigorously but unsuccessfully protested this practice, which it says deprives a defendant of the right to choose his own lawyer.

In the Noriega case, however, Mr. Rubino has an advantage not available to most defendants in the general's situation. He can demonstrate that his client has millions of dollars in assets that are definitely not the product of any drug trafficking because they were paid to him by -- catch this -- the American government for services he provided to its intelligence agencies. Mr. Rubino says these funds amount to $11 million. The government disputes the figure but does concede that a very large sum is involved. This money is not tainted. It's as clean as if Gen. Noriega had inherited it from his mother. Mr. Rubino contends, and he's right, that the government should be made to provide an accounting of the assets it has frozen so that he can, in turn, demonstrate which accounts contain untainted funds that should be made available to the defense.

When details of this government's long-standing relationship with Gen. Noriega are revealed, there will be a lot of red faces and angry taxpayers. But sparing the government some embarrassment is no excuse for denying even an unsavory defendant his full constitutional rights. Government lawyers who pressed for this indictment must have anticipated that the project would be difficult and expensive. Having elected to take this course, they cannot balk at Gen. Noriega's demand to use his own funds to secure the best defense money can buy.