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‘Still Talking,’ White House Says on Noriega : Baker Defends ‘Plea Bargain’ With Noriega

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From Times Wire Services

The White House today defended its consideration of a deal to drop drug indictments against Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, saying the United States would have to make concessions to get the general to leave power.

“We’re still talking” about such a deal, chief presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said. “What this amounts to is a plea bargain,” he said. However, the spokesman said no direct negotiations have taken place with Noriega on the matter.

Fitzwater acknowledged that the United States would have to give ground to Noriega, who has been indicted on drug-trafficking charges in U.S. courts, in order to achieve its goal of ousting him as head of the Panama Defense Forces and the country’s de facto ruler.

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“Plea bargains usually imply you’re getting something for giving up something,” Fitzwater told reporters at a briefing.

Fitzwater denied that Reagan made “direct contact” with Noriega as reported by Panama’s state-run television.

“The President obviously has directed the negotiations that have gone on there, but I won’t go further,” the spokesman said. “Negotiations are continuing, with no agreements reached.”

‘Fruitful and Productive’

Earlier, White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. told CBS-TV that if such an arrangement got Noriega out of power, “that would be the most fruitful and productive plea bargain that we have seen in a long time.”

Reports of an offer to Noriega brought sharp criticism today from several senators.

Administration sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Wednesday that Florida drug-trafficking indictments against the de facto Panamanian ruler would be dropped if he stepped down and left the country for a year. The sources said the Justice Department objected to the offer, which was approved at a White House meeting.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said if descriptions of the offer were accurate, it would appear to be a victory for Noriega, allowing his loyalists to retain control while he spent “a year’s vacation on the Riviera.”

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“If I was a cop in Boston or Miami or somewhere, I’d sit there and say this Administration has sent a signal that crime does pay,” Kerry said on the CBS show.

Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.), said: “I think it’d be a terrible mistake to take the word of a drug-dealing killer dictator that he’s going to get out and allow free elections sometime next year, and he’d be allowed to stay in until August.”

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