MIAMI, NOV. 28 -- A federal judge today lifted his order barring Cable News Network from broadcasting Manuel Antonio Noriega's jailhouse telephone conversations after defense lawyers concluded that tape recordings of the calls contained nothing that would jeopardize their client's defense.
At a hearing today before U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, the defense withdrew objections to the broadcast after reviewing transcripts of the tapes.
The ruling was an anticlimax after a highly charged constitutional showdown over the conflicting principles of the right to a fair trial and the right to free press. When the defense team won the injunction prohibiting broadcast of conversations between the deposed Panamanian dictator and his defense team, the network pushed the issue all the way to the Supreme Court and lost.
Today, Frank Rubino, Noriega's chief defense lawyer, said the now-infamous tapes over which the lofty battle was waged did not include any attorney-client conversations other than a snippet of one aired by CNN Nov. 9.
"Great issues of principle frequently arise out of situations in which the principle is as important as the particular matter in the controversy," said attorney Floyd Abrams, a First Amendment specialist in New York. "This turns out to be a situation in which there was never any threat at all to General Noriega's right to a fair trial."
The tapes confrontation is one of several complicated issues that have sidetracked the Noriega drug-trafficking case. So cumbersome have these issues become that Hoeveler, who also presides over the criminal case, fretted openly in court Monday that the case has acquired a bad image that may hamper Noriega's chance to get a fair trial.
Since well before the tapes controversy, Hoeveler has been trying to resolve the even more complicated matter of assuring that Noriega's attorneys are paid.
Earlier this month, they asked to withdraw from the case if Noriega's considerable assets, frozen by the U.S. government shortly after his imprisonment, are not freed so he can pay his defense team.
Hoeveler has implored the lawyers to resolve their difficulties so he can convene the trial Jan. 28. But he has conceded that he expects further delays.
The tapes saga began Nov. 8 when CNN reported that it had obtained excerpts of Noriega's telephone calls taped at the federal prison where the deposed Panamanian dictator has been held since he surrendered to U.S. authorities in Panama last January. It broadcast part of a taped conversation between Noriega and a Cuban in Panama.
Rubino immediately petitioned Hoeveler, who ordered the network not to broadcast tapes that violated the attorney-client privilege.
On Nov. 9, while appealing the order to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, CNN aired an excerpt of a conversation between Noriega and Rubino's secretary, acting as a translator for one of Rubino's investigators. The network stopped airing the report the next day when the appellate court upheld Hoeveler's order.
Eight days later, the Supreme Court refused to intervene, and CNN was forced to turn over seven tapes to Hoeveler, who in turn gave them to a federal magistrate for review. Late Tuesday, defense lawyers, prosecutors and Hoeveler read transcripts of the tapes.
"It does no good to close the barn door after the horse is out," said Rubino, explaining why he asked Hoeveler to drop the matter.
CNN officials said they were pleased that the order was lifted but remain concerned that the appellate court had agreed that prior restraint was necessary in the case.
"While we're pleased that the restraining order has been lifted, the procedure employed by the court and upheld in the 11th Circuit is disturbing to us," said Steve Korn, CNN's general counsel. "What Judge Hoeveler has done here is, in effect, a form of pre-publication review of a pending news story. That kind of review is unprecedented and most unnecessary. We hope that type of procedure is never employed again."
CNN President Tom Johnson said the network continues to pursue information on government taping of Noriega's prison telephone conversations. The network has reported in its stories on the tapes that Noriega has been talking to friends about rebuilding his base in Panama and transferring money.
Rubino said he now wants to concentrate on why the tapes were made. He has asked that the drug-trafficking charges be dropped because government taping of Noriega's calls went beyond routine monitoring applied to other federal inmates.
Rubino said that although Noriega signed a waiver acknowledging the government's right to monitor telephone conversations other than with his defense team, "he never did sign a waiver that the government has a right to disseminate these conversations to the world.
"When one talks on the phone, one believes they have some degree of privacy, at least that it won't be broadcast to millions of people," Rubino said.
Hoeveler also has been disturbed about dissemination of Noriega's conversations. He ordered the federal Bureau of Prisons to stop sharing Noriega's taped conversations with other government agencies. Rubino has claimed that Panamanian President Guillermo Endara's government gave the tapes to CNN after obtaining them from U.S. sources.
Noriega is charged with accepting $4.6 million in payoffs from Colombia's Medellin drug cartel to protect cocaine shipments that passed through his country on their way to the United States.
In another development, a lawyer for the Panamanian government, which has filed a $6.5 billion civil racketeering suit against Noriega, said he has "information" from the tapes, including subjects not aired by CNN.
Gregory B. Craig, a Washington lawyer representing Panama, said Noriega's telephone conversations indicate that he has been shifting assets around the world even while pleading poverty before Hoeveler.
In an affidavit, Craig said Noriega has spoken to his daughter, Sandra; his mistress, Vicki Amado; her mother, Norma Amado; and seven others, including a former Panamanian presidential candidate backed by Noriega.
"Mr. Noriega has directed and continues to direct the movement of assets from accounts in financial institutions" in Hong Kong, Israel, Singapore, Australia and Brazil, the affidavit said.
The suit claims that Noriega looted Panama's national treasury while he headed the government, taking between $300 million and $500 million. Panama's lawyers have asked that Noriega be prevented from moving assets by telephone from prison.
Lawyers for Panama say Noriega has made a mockery of efforts to free $27 million of his assets to pay his defense team.
"This defendant is moving and hiding money even as we stand here," lawyer John Kester said a hearing this week.