CNN, Noriega Declare Truce on Tapes Until High Court Rules
MIAMI (AP) _ Manuel Noriega and Cable News Network declared a cease-fire Monday, agreeing to postpone their constitutional showdown over taped conversations until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the issue.
Under the deal worked out in federal court, CNN must refrain from playing any tapes between the imprisoned former Panamanian leader and his attorneys.
In return, Noriega’s defense delayed a request for contempt penalties of up to $300,000 per broadcast against the network. U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler also delayed his order demanding that CNN hand over seven disputed tapes to the court.
″Our concern is to keep General Noriega from being denied a fair trial,″ defense attorney Jon May said. ″I’m not here to squeeze blood out of CNN.″
He said suspending the contempt proceedings will allow the Supreme Court to focus on the broader constitutional question balancing protections of the attorney-client privilege and freedom of speech.
Noriega’s attorneys Saturday asked the judge to find CNN in contempt after the network defied his court order and televised a contested tape.
CNN attorney Terry Bienstock said the network accepted the deal, but had the right to play other Noriega tapes as long as they did not include conversations with his attorneys. The judge agreed.
The Atlanta-based network is expected to file its appeal to the Supreme Court later in the week, a CNN spokesman said.
″We agreed that CNN would not air, pending Supreme Court review, any attorney-client conversations that it has in its possession,″ network attorney Terry Bienstock said. ″We just want the issues to be narrowly and properly framed before the Supreme Court.″
Federal prosecutors have remained on the sidelines during the CNN-Noriega dispute, but U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen said Monday he supports the gag order.
″These tapes should not be played under the fair-trial concept,″ Lehtinen told the judge.
May said Monday’s deal stops the clock on the contempt penalties, but does not prevent the defense from later asking for fines against CNN.
Although attention has focused on the media, May said there are also other potential parties to the dispute.
″There’s a whole bunch of people in the U.S. who may have these tapes, including the State Department and the CIA,″ he said. Lead Noriega attorney Frank Rubino has said the tapes were leaked to CNN by a Panamanian official who received them from the State Department.
Rubino has said he expects to ask for dismissal of all charges against Noriega based on government misconduct in recording the calls made from the Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Hoeveler endorsed the deal, but took note of CNN’s one-day defiance of his previous gag order. He emphasized that over the weekend the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta backed his original ban on broadcasting the conversations.
″If you play any tapes in violation of my order, you are violating not only my order, but also the appeals court order,″ Hoeveler said.
CNN had defied the order by broadcasting an excerpt Friday night and Saturday in which the deposed Panamanian ruler spoke in Spanish with a secretary for Rubino. On the tape, Noriega speculated that the government would use as witnesses against him two men who surrendered to U.S. troops in Panama.
Noriega is accused of accepting $4.6 million in bribes from Colombia’s Medellin cocaine cartel. He has been held near Miami since his surrender to U.S. forces shortly after the invasion of Panama in December.