An exiled former aide to Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega said today that CIA reports were sent regularly to Noriega on the personal lives of U.S. senators and congressional staff members.
The revelation by Jose I. Blandon, once Noriega's consul general in New York, was part of an outpouring of testimony before a Senate foreign relations subcommittee that included tales of drug trafficking, murder, gunrunning, money laundering and a host of other illegal activities said to have been used by Noriega to build a vast fortune.
The CIA reports, along with others prepared by the National Security Council staff, included information on the activities of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), a leading Noriega critic, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Blandon said. The reports detailed "Kennedy's positions, and his own personal problems," Blandon testified.
Other intelligence on senators flowed to Noriega from U.S. political activist Lyndon LaRouche, he said, adding, "Mr. LaRouche works for Mr. Noriega."
An outraged Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) called the sworn testimony about the CIA "as disturbing a revelation as I've heard in the course of a lot of disturbing revelations over the past year and a half."
He called it "reprehensible" that the reports included details about senators' personal lives and said the sharing of such data was apparently "part of the ingratiation process, part of the sweetheart relationship" between Noriega and the CIA.
Most of the senators on whom reports were sent were sponsors of legislation aimed at cutting off U.S. aid to Panama because of drug problems, said Deborah DeMoss, an aide to Helms who was the subject of one of the CIA reports.
'Duped or Blind'
Kerry said federal agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, "have either been duped or blind and allowed this drug process to go on in a sweetheart deal with someone like General Noriega."
Blandon said Noriega once shipped arms to leftist insurgents in El Salvador while ostensibly working with the CIA to counter the insurgency.
In the early 1980s, Noriega, then Panama's intelligence chief, helped arrange the sale of weapons to leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, Blandon said. At the same time, Noriega was working with the CIA and other U.S. military intelligence agencies striving to combat El Salvador's leftist insurgency, Blandon said.
Summing up, Kerry said: "So while Gen. Noriega was working for the CIA and being paid by us, he was selling arms to the groups we were opposing."
"Yes," Blandon agreed.
Blandon told the committee that the general's control of his nation and a network of drug- and money-laundering operations is now so complete that he receives $3 million a year from the country's central bank as "petty cash."
Noriega, indicted by a federal grand jury in Miami last week and charged with accepting at least $4.6 million to make Panama a safe haven for drug- and money-laundering operations, has adamantly denied all accusations against him.
But Blandon told the committee, "Together, Noriega and his group have turned Panama into a gigantic machine for all sorts of criminal activities and enterprises."
He estimated the Panamanian leader's fortune as being at least $200 million but said there are some estimates pegging it closer to $1 billion.
Blandon said Noriega lives lavishly, maintaining a dozen homes in Panama, a fleet of luxury cars and aircraft and a residence in France.