White House Pulls Back on Noriega ‘Plea Bargaining’

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The White House today pulled back from its description of talks with Panama’s Gen. Manuel A. Noriega as legal “plea bargaining” but said the aim of the negotiations remains the same--his ouster.

Spokesman Marlin Fitzwater indicated that White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr.’s characterization last week of the talks with Noriega, who has been indicted on drug trafficking charges in Florida, as plea bargaining had raised objections within the Administration.

Fitzwater had also used the phrase in his daily briefing and said the term implied the need for the United States to make concessions in order to achieve its aim.


When asked today whether the negotiations with Noriega to agree on terms for his departure could still be described that way, Fitzwater at first refused comment.

“I won’t give them any description,” he said.

Baker last week suggested that a plea bargain to drop the drug indictments against Noriega in return for his departure would be a good one. Pressed today whether the phrase used by Baker was now inoperative, Fitzwater replied:

“That is his description. I repeated it here in the sense of the give and take of the argument so I would prefer not to repeat it. I wouldn’t use that phrase now,” he said.

Reports last week of the proposed U.S. offer to drop the indictments against Noriega prompted outrage on Capitol Hill and strong opposition from the Justice Department and the two federal prosecutors handling the case against the general.

Fitzwater indicated that the shift, which he said had no bearing on the substance of the U.S.-Noriega negotiations, had been caused by opposition to the phrase from some Administration officials. He did not identify them.