Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams told Panamanian President Eric Arturo Delvalle on Wednesday that U.S. law would permit dropping drug-related charges against military strongman Manuel Noriega if he and his associates give up power over Panama, the State Department acknowledged yesterday.
But department spokesman Charles E. Redman and other officials insisted that Abrams was only responding to "a theoretically posed question by Delvalle." They said that the Reagan administration has no intention of making any such deal.
"We all see the drug problem of tremendous importance to the United States . . . . We have every intention of carrying through the indictments," Redman said in a lengthy exchange with reporters that underscored the controversial nature of the situation and the administration's embarrassment at suggestions of a possible deal.
The administration has openly sought since last summer to pressure Noriega into stepping aside because it fears that his alleged criminal activities and growing unpopularity among Panamanians could create instability that would endanger the Panama Canal.
Earlier this month, Noriega was indicted by two federal grand juries in Florida on racketeering and other drug-related charges. When his case was still under investigation, some U.S. officials had suggested the possibility of dropping the investigation if he stepped down.
By now, however, Noriega has become so notorious that any deal would provoke strong opposition in Congress, where his foes range from conservatives such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) who are suspicious of his ties to Latin American leftists, to liberals such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) who charge him with human-rights abuses.
The latest talk about a possible deal first emerged Thursday when the Long Island newspaper Newsday reported that Abrams and Delvalle had met secretly in Miami. The Newsday account quoted a "source with ties to Delvalle" as saying Abrams had offered a possible dismissal of the indictments if Noriega agreed to surrender command of the Panamanian defense forces and go into exile.
Redman confirmed Thursday that Abrams had met Delvalle "to review the current political situation in Panama." Other State Department officials, who asked not to be identified, said Thursday night that the idea of a deal had been broached by Delvalle in a "theoretical" discussion about whether U.S. law would permit dropping an indictment.
The officials said Abrams had reiterated to Delvalle the U.S. view that Panama must come under civilian control. But they denied that Abrams said anything that could be regarded as an offer to quash the drug charges if Noriega steps aside.
But yesterday The New York Times quoted a Justice Department spokesman, John K. Russell, as saying Abrams had notified senior criminal division officials that he "would seek to have the indictment dropped against Noriega if he left the country." According to the Times, Russell said the Justice Department told Abrams it opposed the idea.
Redman, responding to the Times article, acknowledged that Abrams had asked the Justice Department for "a legal opinion" in order to answer Delvalle's question and had passed on the information that it technically would be possible to drop an indictment. But Redman added that Russell "had the facts slightly wrong" when he said that Abrams had advocated such a course.
In a related development, Brian Alden Davidow, 26, the only person named in the indictments against Noriega actually in U.S. custody, pleaded not guilty in Miami. Davidow, a student at Florida International University, is charged with conspiring with Noriega and others to smuggle cocaine from Panama to the United States for the Colombia-based Medellin drug cartel.