The commander of U.S. military forces in Central America said yesterday he is satisfied there has been no tampering with records seized from the regime of deposed Panamanian ruler Manuel Antonio Noriega in the U.S. invasion of Panama last December.
Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman, head of the Panama-based U.S. Southern Command, said thousands of internal Panamanian government records remain in custody of the U.S. military in Panama and the documents have provided U.S. authorities with detailed information on Noriega's rule.
In a breakfast meeting with reporters here, Thurman declined to discuss the contents of the files and referred to the Justice Department any questions relating to drug charges pending against Noriega and others in U.S. District Court in Miami.
A lawyer for a Noriega codefendant in the Miami drug case charged on Wednesday that "elements" in the U.S. government have secretly removed documents potentially embarrassing to the United States from records obtained in last December's invasion.
Attorney Michael J. O'Kane, who represents Daniel Miranda, a pilot charged with flying drug money to Panama, filed court papers asking a federal judge to order the government to provide a complete list of all seized documents and to make them available to defense lawyers.
Thurman said "there's an enormous quantity of documents. We have them under our custodianship, and I am satisfied with our custodianship."
Thurman said a special U.S. military support group established after the invasion is working with the new Panamanian government to help convert the old Panama Defense Forces into a civilian-controlled national police unit.
The U.S. military support group, which provides logistical, communications, engineering and other assistance to the Panamanians, is headed by Col. James J. Steele. Steele has previously come under scrutiny on Capitol Hill for his involvement with former White House aide Oliver L. North's secret operation to resupply the Nicaraguan contras while Steele headed the U.S. military assistance group in El Salvador between 1984 and 1986.
Thurman said he recruited Steele to Panama because he is a "hell of an officer" whom Thurman has known for a number of years.
Thurman said a small contingent of U.S. military officers working under Steele remains inside the country working with the new Panamanian police force, but he expects that role to end later this year.
Some Panamanian politicians have complained that former associates of Noriega continue to hold posts in the new police force. Sources have said that Steele and other U.S. officials are closely monitoring leadership of the new police force.
Thurman said he is satisfied the new government is removing any officers previously involved in improper activities. He noted that the second-highest official in the new police force was recently removed because of past activities.
Meanwhile yesterday, U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler in Miami demanded that prosecutors in Noriega's drug case justify seizure of his assets, saying failure to do so violates Noriega's constitutional rights against illegal search and seizure and guaranteeing his right to counsel.
Hoeveler rejected the government's claim that the seizures, which involved treaties with third countries, were not subject to judicial review, and set a hearing Wednesday on the matter, demanding that the government identify all property and assets seized and give detailed accounts of its status.