Because of an editing error, a headline yesterday indicated that the credibility of Jose I. Blandon, a former confidant of Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega, was "in doubt." As the story stated, the U.S. Attorney in Miami who is using Blandon as a witness in a criminal prosecution of Noriega is not questioning his veracity, which has also been accepted by a bipartisan group of senators who have taken up his cause. (Published 3/3/88)

The U.S. Marshals Service has considered withdrawing its protection of Jose I. Blandon, a key U.S. government witness against Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, because of questions about Blandon's credibility, Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) said yesterday.

D'Amato said that in a conversation with his staff last week, a Marshals Service official said the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami, which used Blandon as a witness before a federal grand jury that indicted Panamanian strongman Noriega on drug charges last month, no longer regarded Blandon as credible.

However, D'Amato said Leon Kellner, the U.S. Attorney in Miami, told him he still regarded Blandon as a credible witness and had not asked for the marshals to be withdrawn, a statement confirmed by aides to Kellner yesterday.

An administration official, who asked not to be identified, said yesterday Blandon remains under guard by the marshals and removing his protection is "not even under consideration." The Marshals Service through a spokesman declined to comment, saying that it is against agency policy to discuss such matters.

D'Amato, a leading Noriega critic who has accused U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies of overlooking Noriega'a alleged drug involvement, said the withdrawal of protection from Blandon, a former top Noriega aide, would "sabotage" efforts to document Noriega's reputed crimes. The senator said halting the protection would discourage other witnesses from breaking with Noriega.

"We can't abandon people who have given very crucial testimony," D'Amato said. "We want to encourage people who have this kind of valuable information to come forward."

D'Amato said a Marshals Service official told him yesterday the high-cost of protecting Blandon was part of the agency's concern, and he promised to seek additional funds for the service.

Congressional aides said the Marshals Service has estimated the cost of protections for Blandon and his family as tens of thousands of dollars a week.

D'Amato asserted that some current and former U.S. officials, particularly in the defense and intelligence communities, are seeking to impugn Blandon's credibility because they are "absolutely fearful that the rottenness of their {Noriega support} operation . . . is coming out." Current and former U.S. officials have said Noriega's chief source of support has come from the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.

D'Amato said Blandon is concerned about a long interview Blandon had last week with two CIA officials.

D'Amato said that during the session, the CIA officials questioned Blandon about his recent congressional testimony in which he alleged that Noriega received "intelligence reports" prepared by the CIA and the National Security Council about the political and personal views of Sens. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and two of their aides.

According to D'Amato, Blandon said he was initially told that the meeting would be with Justice Department prosecutors but when he arrived he was introduced to the CIA officials who, a source said, identified themselves as from the CIA's office of inspector general.

A CIA spokesman yesterday declined to comment on the report of the Blandon interview, but said that under CIA Director William H. Webster it is standard practice for the agency's inspector general to investigate allegations of improper activity. The CIA has denied Blandon's allegation on the intelligence data.

D'Amato said his staff was told by the Marshals Service that doubts about Blandon's credibility stemmed from Blandon's testimony on both the alleged CIA reports and his claim that Vice President Bush asked Noriega to advise Cuban President Fidel Castro of the 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. Bush has denied the assertion.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Gregorie, the prosecutor who supervised the Miami Noriega indictment, said he remains confident of Blandon's testimony on Noriega's alleged involvement in drug smuggling.

Gregorie said Blandon was used to confirm other testimony prosecutors had received on Noriega's alleged drug role. Gregorie said he would have to agree to drop the protection of Blandon, and he has not made such a request.