What a difference a year makes. Last Thanksgiving, having celebrated the fall of communism, the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the dawning of the kinder, gentler 1990s, the United States turned its energies to corraling the public enemy of the moment. He was the strutting tinhorn dictator of Panama, Manuel Antonio Noriega, a ludicrous figure more fitted for opera bouffe than real-life international drama.
At that time, Noriega was glorying in his self-appointed role of David against the American Goliath. The United States, for its part, was loudly huffing and puffing about the threat to peace, order and decency that Noriega represented. He had to go. Survival of democratic values dictated it. Everyone from President Bush down said so.
That Thanksgiving week, newspapers were filled with reports that the Bush administration was planning another attempt to overthrow Noriega. Weeks earlier, the general had emerged from the first attempt stronger than ever, with critics flaying Bush for inconsistency and failure to act decisively.
Stung by those criticisms and by Noriega's insults, Bush turned up the rhetoric. He let it be known that the United States was seeking new ways to dislodge Noriega.
Bush began a widely publicized effort to turn world opinion against the Panamanian dictator. He highlighted Noriega's record as a dangerous person who had transformed Panama into an outlaw frontier by aggressively permitting the international drug cartel to launder drug money and ship narcotics through his country, most of them headed for U.S. consumption. Noriega, officials charged, had amassed a personal fortune of between $200 million and $300 million, mainly through drug trafficking and other criminal activities. He was a bad guy. The president promised to get him.
In furtherance of that goal, Bush expanded economic sanctions against Panama. The stated hope was that, through stiffer economic pressure and by ostracizing Noriega internationally, he would be forced to step down or be overthrown.
That didn't work. Finally, the president launched an invasion of Panama. American and Panamanian lives were lost, national treasure was expended and wreckage of war pockmarked the small country. But Noriega was brought back in manacles and paraded as an example of how America had won one; that is, how America had triumphed over despots and demonstrated willingness to use massive military force to support democratic principles. These were lessons that other dictators could ponder. So, anyway, went the word then from Washington.
Noriega was imprisoned on drug-trafficking charges in Miami to await his fate at the hands of the criminal justice system. He faded from view. America shifted its attention to other problems, such as the declining economy and the emergence of another threatening dictator, Saddam Hussein, whose actions provoked eerily similar reactions in the Bush administration.
Now, suddenly, Noriega is back in the news in a way that ought to disturb every American. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case.
In recent days, public attention has focused on whether Cable News Network (CNN) has the right to broadcast government tapes it acquired of Noriega's telephone calls from prison to his defense team. The network did broadcast one of those tapes, leading the defense to seek a restraining order on grounds that airing them publicly could jeopardize Noriega's attorney-client privilege. Last Sunday, the Supreme Court voted 7 to 2 to reject CNN's emergency request to lift a federal appeals court order banning the broadcasts until a judge could determine what the disputed tapes contain.
Thus, the court imposed the principle of prior restraint on the press, a red-flag issue in the eyes of civil libertarians.
Even more disturbing about this case, what was the government doing bugging Noriega and his lawyers in the first place? Along with the presumption of innocence to which everyone is entitled in the American system of justice comes an equally vital constitutional right: the sanctity of the attorney-client relationship.
The government has no business electronically eavesdropping on privileged conversations between lawyer and client. Worse, the government not only employed totalitarian Big Brother techniques but also may have compounded them by leaking the results to the media.
In doing so, the government makes a mockery of the system it represents and besmirches the principles that Americans literally died to uphold when they invaded Panama to capture Noriega a year ago.