Bush Aide Denies Noriega-Link Story
Sep. 22, 1988
WASHINGTON (AP) _ A top aide to George Bush said Thursday the vice president complained to a high-level Panama official about drug-money laundering during a visit five years ago but did not discuss it with Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Bush's chief of staff, Craig Fuller, discussed the 1983 Bush-Noriega meeting twice with reporters after a British television documentary quoted a former senior Noriega aide as saying Bush had complained to the general about money laundering.
The assertion by Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera runs counter to Bush's contention that the Reagan administration took action against Noriega as soon as it learned of alleged drug activity by Panama's de facto leader.
Noriega was indicted in federal court on drug charges in February and U.S. sanctions began against Panama early this year.
''This story is something we've discussed before. It's not something we've attempted to hide,'' Fuller said. Later, Fuller said again ''it is not news'' and said the Bush presidential campaign wanted to ''clear up any lingering questions'' before the Sunday night debate with Democrat Michael Dukakis.
The vice president's staff confirmed Bush met with Panama's then-President Ricardo de la Espriella and other officials, including Noriega briefly.
Fuller, speaking with reporters at Andrews Air Force Base as Bush prepared to leave for a campaign event in Boston, said the vice president aired his concerns to Espriella and other officials.
Fuller said a review of still-classified briefing papers on the meeting showed that the 45-minute meeting occurred during a refueling stopover in Panama on Dec. 11, 1983, at the Panama City airport.
He said there was no indication that Noriega spoke during the session on drug-money laundering or on anything else of substance.
Still, Fuller said, ''The notion that Vice President Bush would sit down with the president of Panama and discuss drug-money laundering should be a plus.''
He said that at the meeting Espriella told Bush that his government would step up ''efforts to try to curtail this laundering.''
On a separate allegation that Noriega had information - on alleged training of Nicaraguan Contra soldiers in Panama - with which he planned to blackmail the vice president, Fuller said, ''That's a foolhardy notion. We don't believe he's blackmailing us.''
Fuller added there was no substance to the allegations and he did not think Noriega had anything with which the United States could be blackmailed.
Diaz and Jose I. Blandon, a former senior intelligence officer in Panama, were quoted as saying Noriega claims to have pictures and tape recordings that would link Bush or his aides to secret training of Nicaraguan rebels.
From October 1984 to October 1986, U.S. law prohibited any U.S. government aid to the Contras in their fight to topple Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government. The documentary did not say when the pictures were taken nor when the tape recordings were made.
''We have learned that as early as 1983 ... George Bush sat down with Gen. Noriega to complain about the laundering of drug money in Panama,'' reporter Julian Manyon said on the Thames Television program, which was screened for reporters Wednesday.
Manyon said the meeting raised ''important questions'' about Bush's contention the administration acted as soon as it learned of allegations against Noriega concerning the laundering of drug profits.
Diaz, who was interviewed in Venezuela, said he once saw Noriega examining photographs which apparently showed Contras being secretly trained in Panama under an arrangement with Lt. Col. Oliver North, the White House aide dismissed over the Iran-Contra affair in which profits from arms sales to Iran were funneled to the Contras.
In the TV interview, Blandon replied, ''Of course'' when asked if he believed ''people inside the Bush campaign are aware of the threat that Noriega poses for them.''
Blandon, who has been a witness at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing investigating Noriega, said the general has sent a message to Bush campaign officials that he has the tape recordings.
The documentary was to be broadcast Thursday night on Britain's commercial Independent Television Network.