POLITICS 88 : Story of 1985 Bush Briefing on Noriega, Drugs Is Denied

Times Staff Writers

A fresh surge of doubts about Vice President George Bush and his insider information on drug smuggling in Panama reached a peak Sunday with a published account saying he knew more than he is telling. The account was quickly challenged by the principal in the tale--but the suspicions are apt to linger on, anyway.

Bush, as former CIA director and as a member of the Administration's National Security Council, has campaigned for the presidency on the edge of a sword--saying his long foreign-policy experience makes him perhaps the most qualified man in modern history for the job, but at the same time skirting uncomfortable foreign policy problems of the Administration by claiming lack of knowledge.

The controversy over Panama strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega and his role as reputed international drug lord is the latest example.

Meeting With Envoy

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Bush was informed about Noriega's drug-running in a December, 1985, meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador to Panama Everett Ellis Briggs. The date is nearly three years before Bush said he had convincing evidence of the Latin American general's involvement. Bush has said he was unaware of the matter until Noriega was indicted by two federal grand juries in February of this year.

According to the New York Times report, Briggs, who is now U.S. ambassador to Honduras, made serious drug-running charges against Noriega in cables sent to the State Department before his meeting with Bush. The story cited unnamed Reagan Administration sources who indicated that Briggs had related the substance of those cables to the vice president at their meeting.

On Sunday, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Briggs said the account was inaccurate. "We simply did not have evidence of these activities at that time, and so any statement that I did brief him at that time simply is not true," Briggs said.

Paper Quotes Testimony

Meanwhile, the Washington Post published a long account concluding that Bush "understates" just how much he knew about Noriega and when he knew it. The paper quoted the no-holds-barred congressional testimony of Norman Bailey about what the U.S. government knew of activities in Panama dating back to the 1970s. Bailey was formerly an aide to the NSC, of which Bush is one of four statutory members.

"Available to me as an officer of the NSC and available to any authorized official of the U.S. government is a plethora of human intelligence, electronic intercepts and satellite and overflight photography that, taken together, constitute not just a smoking gun but rather a 21-cannon barrage of evidence," he said.

Still, a key Democratic staff member to a Senate panel that has investigated Noriega said: "We haven't come across anything to suggest that he (Bush) had a considerable amount of knowledge."

Regardless, Democrats said doubts about Bush's role will not disappear.

"If he didn't know, that's almost as disturbing in a sense," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who chairs the Latin American subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "He was director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Gen. Noriega has been on the U.S. government payroll for some years. I'm concerned, in a sense, that he would suggest he wasn't aware of it at all."

Confronts Questions Daily

On the campaign stump, Bush is confronted daily with questions from reporters--sometimes disbelieving in tone. His response is unequivocal and sometimes combative.

"It is our Administration that is bringing Noriega to justice," he told an interviewer in Columbus, Ohio, for instance.

Yes, the questioner said, but could U.S. officials have acted sooner and did you not know sooner?

"In terms of drugs, absolutely not, no. And nobody with any sense of decency in the political arena has alleged I have. And they better not because it's not true. And if they say it's true, let's see the evidence," Bush replied.

"You have to defend yourself in life and that kind of charge coming out of the Democrats--I hear it from some of the liberal (former Sen. George S.) McGovern types around Mr. (Michael S.) Dukakis and (Jesse) Jackson that there is some connection there. What is it? Let them be man enough to stand up to my face and tell me."

Jackson, campaigning in Huntington, W. Va., on Sunday, said: "This Administration is up to its throat. It is choking on sleaze. Obviously Mr. Bush could not have been a hands-on vice president who knew what was happening and then have selective memory and not know what was happening."

'Aware' of Rumors

As for the latest charges, Bush spokesman Peter B. Teeley reiterated that the vice president was "aware" of the rumors linking Noriega to drug-running, but had no concrete evidence of it until this year, when the federal government took action. Teeley also denied that Bush had discussed the matter with Briggs in 1985.

Teeley also denied that Bush was aware at the time of a trip which Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter, then national security adviser, made to Panama, six days before the vice president's meeting with Briggs. The purpose of the trip was to convey U.S. warnings to Noriega about official drug corruption.

Bush has been similarly dogged--and forced to claim lack of knowledge--on two other major foreign policy controversies. On the sale of U.S. weaponry to Iran, the vice president has said that, along with the President, he did not believe it was an arms-for-hostage swap. He has likewise said he was unaware of secret U.S. operations to assist the Nicaraguan Contras in 1985, despite a legal ban on such aid.

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