Irate members of Congress on Wednesday accused the Reagan Administration of trying to influence the upcoming presidential election by leaking word that President Reagan has approved a covert operation intended to oust Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega.
Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said members of his oversight panel told the President's national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, that they viewed the disclosure as "very disturbing"--especially in light of the Administration's claim that Congress has been to blame for previous leaks of secret information.
It was learned that the President has authorized U.S. assistance for exiled Panamanian Col. Eduardo Herrera, who now lives in Miami, in an effort to foment opposition among Noriega's defense forces. But congressional sources denied a report by ABC News that Herrera figures prominently in plans for a coup attempt against Noriega approved by Reagan.
"I don't think it's built around one guy," said a knowledgeable source.
Some Members Opposed
Although the scope of the President's covert action against Noriega remained secret, Boren indicated that some members of his oversight committee had expressed opposition to it after being briefed by the Administration on Tuesday. He said the Administration's policy on Noriega to date has been "very inept and not well thought out."
"I think they have dug themselves into a deep hole," Boren said. "I have great sympathy for the next President--be he Michael Dukakis or George Bush--who will inherit this situation."
At the White House, Reagan refused to comment on the issue, but he reiterated his desire to see Noriega leave office. "I've seen all these things in the paper," he said, "and all I have to say is this is something I can't talk about."
Sen. Alphonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) said it was obviously leaked by White House officials in an effort to "minimize the political damage" that Vice President George Bush has suffered as a result of the Administration's earlier support for Noriega.
"Democrats have made this an issue; Michael Dukakis has made this an issue," said D'Amato. "Maybe someone sees this as a way to indicate that we're doing something."
Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) said the leak clearly was part of a GOP effort to regain the political momentum for Bush. "Noriega is one more thing George Bush does not need to carry around with him," she said.
Likewise, Boren said the leak was either designed to assist the Bush campaign or it was the work of an Administration official seeking to sabotage the policy. Earlier this year, Defense and State department officials were severely divided over U.S. policy in Panama.
In addition, Boren charged that the Administration leak was timed to coincide with a briefing for members of his committee on the covert operation Tuesday afternoon. He accused Administration officials of doing this to create a false impression that the leak was coming from Congress, not the White House.
Stories on the covert operation appeared in Wednesday's editions of The Times and the Washington Post. Quoting unidentified government sources, the stories reported that Reagan had signed a formal "finding" authorizing a new covert action to try to force Noriega out of office. The sources would not detail the plan but indicated that it did not include U.S. military action.
Tip for Noriega
For their part, many Administration officials had the same reaction to the leak as members of Congress. Some were also fearful that it had tipped off Noriega to the U.S. policy.
"The general assumption is that this was leaked to deflect criticism from the Administration for supposedly not doing anything about Noriega," said one official, who declined to be identified. "But it doesn't really help get Noriega out. We don't need to give him an early warning of what we're up to. From that standpoint, it's horrible."
Since negotiations with Noriega broke down last May, the Administration is known to have considered a wide variety of options for ousting him--everything from a U.S. invasion to fomenting a coup within the Panamanian military.
D'Amato, who met two weeks ago with deposed Panamanian President Eric A. Delvalle--whom Noriega ousted but whom Washington still recognizes--said he had been told by a "reliable source"-- apparently Delvalle--that the covert operation goes beyond mere psychological warfare.
"This is more than rhetoric," he said. "There is some substance to it."