PANAMA CITY, DEC. 24 -- Intelligence agencies the world over are shrouded in mystery, their operations stamped top-secret and their personnel strictly classified. But in Panama, which has been busy setting up a 100-member intelligence service since July with U.S. assistance, the mystery is even more basic: Who is paying for it?
"Good question," said Luis Martinz, the government's spokesman. "I hadn't thought of it."
"Evidently, we don't pay for that," said Ruben Carles, the controller general, who is in charge of all government outlays. "I'll have to find out."
Panama's infant Council on Public Security and National Defense, which has operated until now unnoticed by either Panama's legislature or press, is so secretive that even some top officials say they have never heard of it.
Carles, for example, who is renowned for his tight-fisted control of the nation's finances, says he has no idea who is paying for the council but that it is not the government of Panama.
The extent of the involvement of the United States, which has been criticized for running what amounts to a parallel government in Panama, is unclear. But two Panamanian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the CIA, which reportedly worked for years in close partnership with former strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, provides training and technical assistance to the new agency.
One Panamanian official said the agency would have an information-swapping relationship with the CIA. The official said also that the Justice Department was assisting. And the Taiwanese and Venezuelans also were said to be helping.
Given the CIA's alleged use of Noriega as a highly paid source of information, a continued operation in Panama could stir bad memories here, some Panamanians say.
"You ask any Panamanian about the CIA, and it rings Noriega bells," said Roberto Eisenmann, publisher of the independent newspaper La Prensa. "Nobody in this country is going to look at the CIA with anything but distrust."
While there is no proof of the source of the council's funding, the CIA's involvement has led some Panamanians to suspect that it is also paying the bills for Panama's new intelligence agency, whose budget could exceed $2 million a year.
"We don't comment on intelligence matters," said the U.S. ambassador in Panama, Deane R. Hinton.
The council, despite its low profile, is itself ringing alarm bells here, in part because of its director, Menalco Solis, a former partner in the law firm of President Guillermo Endara. Solis was treasury minister under Noriega's puppet civilian government in 1984-85 before dropping out of public life to become a beachfront fruit vendor on Panama's Pacific Coast.
When Endara was installed during the U.S. invasion, he brought his former partner into the government as an adviser and later named him to the intelligence post, in which he reports directly to the president. But the appointment has drawn fire from some who think Solis was tainted by his association with previous military regimes.
"After what we've gone through in 21 years, you need a person of the highest integrity and a crystal-clear background," said Eisenmann, the publisher. "And Solis doesn't fit that bill." Solis declined to respond.
The council was established by government edict in February and began operating in July, just months after the U.S. invasion of Panama last December. One official described its targets as "arms, ideology and trouble-makers" -- including, he said, Panama's national police force, which was culled from the army once controlled by Noriega.
"For the first time in the country's history, the function of having intelligence on national security and defense has been located on the level of the president of the republic, who has been elected by the people and has specific constitutional authority," said Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon.