In April 1986, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) arranged for a special Panamanian police narcotics force, a unit under the control of Panama's strongman, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, to obtain 52 pounds of cocaine that had been seized in connection with an undercover drug investigation.

The 52 pounds, valued at about $500,000, was taken by the Panamanian police after the DEA arranged for a plane ferrying about 752 pounds of cocaine to stop off in Panama on the way to the United States, according to court testimony of DEA agents involved in the case. After the Panamanians received the 52 pounds of cocaine, the rest of the cocaine -- about 700 pounds -- was reloaded onto a DEA plane and flown to the United States, where it was used as evidence in a trial that arose out of the investigation.

DEA agents testified at a federal trial in Roanoke, Va., in 1986 that they intended that the cocaine left in Panama be used there in joint DEA-Panamanian undercover operations.

Testimony in the trial, in which 10 persons were convicted of various drug offenses, does not make clear whether the 52 pounds of cocaine was ever used for joint U.S.-Panamanian drug investigations. DEA spokesmen said yesterday they could not immediately determine what happened to the cocaine and said it would take more time to research the matter.

"What they {the Panamanians} did with it or how they used it is something we don't necessarily . . . have knowledge of," a DEA spokesman said.

The incident illustrates the close working ties that exist between DEA agents and Panamanian authorities -- a relationship that is receiving renewed scrutiny following Noriega's recent indictment by federal grand juries in Florida on drug trafficking and racketeering charges.

Some members of Congress have charged that the DEA and other U.S. agencies failed to aggressively pursue allegations, some dating back 15 years, of Noriega's ties to drug trafficking. The critics say the Reagan administration until recently embraced Noriega as an important U.S. ally in Central America and dismissed reports of his drug involvement.

In the past eight months, the administration has adopted a new hard line on Panama, pushing for Noriega to resign as Panama's de facto ruler and military commander.

Noriega, who was chief of Panama's military intelligence for 13 years before becoming military commander in August 1983, has been viewed by the Central Intelligence Agency for years as an important conduit for information, according to current and former U.S. officials.

But DEA and other U.S. officials have strongly denied that foreign policy or other considerations played any role in their treatment of Noriega. They say that evidence they consider credible against the Panamanian only recently became available to investigators.

While saying they have had Noriega's cooperation in investigating the multibillion-dollar Latin American drug trade, DEA officials deny this was a factor in how they handled allegations about him.

But Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), an outspoken Noriega critic who chaired a Senate panel hearing last week into the general's activities, said, "The energies of the law enforcement community were not focused on proving a case."

Francis M. (Bud) Mullen Jr. said that when he was head of DEA in 1981-85, he wrote letters to Noriega praising him for his cooperation and met with him twice after receiving assurances from subordinates that Noriega was not involved in drug trafficking. "We never did have anything on him," Mullen said.

Mullen said Noriega was very responsive to DEA's requests for assistance.

In the absence of hard evidence, said one DEA official, sometimes "a pact with the devil is better than no pact at all."

In the 1986 case involving the Panamanian-DEA cocaine transfer, DEA agents said the fact that most of the cocaine involved went on to the United States was a sign of Panamanian cooperation.

Agents said that once the 752-pound shipment landed in Panama, the cocaine was technically in possession of Panamanian authorities, who could have legally kept it all.

DEA agent Douglas L. Driver, who was stationed in Panama at the time of the air shipment, testified at the trial that he helped negotiate the arrangement for splitting the cocaine. "It was something that was being worked out . . . very informally and loosely. But when it comes right down to it, the

Panamanians had control of the


Driver said the DEA decided to have the plane stop in Panama, and said that if the Panamanians had not agreed to the deal, "we would have probably moved the operation to some other" country.

Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees the DEA, said he is looking into whether the agency took safeguards to ensure the cocaine was properly used by the Panamanians. He said he also is examining whether it was appropriate for the DEA to be involved in a drug transfer with Panama.