The Senate expressed dissatisfaction Thursday with President Bush’s decision not to intervene in a coup attempt in Panama and called on Bush to use all available means--including “military options"--to wrest control of the country from Manuel A. Noriega.
Republicans and Democrats alike voiced opposition to the Administration’s handling of the matter as they debated a resolution offered by Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) that reaffirmed the prerogatives of the President to take action in Panama.
The resolution, which passed 99 to 1, said that Congress supports “the President’s utilization of the full range of appropriate diplomatic, economic and military options in the Republic of Panama.”
Suggestions of Lying
Nunn and other senators strongly suggested that Administration officials may be lying to Congress about the details of the failed coup. “I have serious questions about what went on; I have serious questions that we’ve been given all the facts,” Nunn said.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman David Boren (D-Okla.) added: “I am convinced that the full facts have not been laid out to us or to the American people.”
Their suspicions were fueled by information gathered by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) indicating that the Administration had rejected a plea by the rebels for U.S. troops to arrest Noriega while he reportedly was being held captive at the Panamanian Defense Forces headquarters.
“They were eager to turn over Noriega,” Helms insisted.
Administration officials have told members of Congress that the rebels refused a U.S. request to surrender Noriega to American forces and instead insisted that he be permitted to retire quietly in Panama after the coup.
Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney again insisted that the Administration has not misrepresented what happened in Panama. “Sen. Helms is just wrong,” Cheney said.
Helms, who claimed to have at least “two sources” for all his information, also asserted that the coup attempt had been predicated on numerous statements by Bush Administration officials indicating that the United States was anxious to apprehend Noriega.
In addition, he said, when the rebels outlined their plan for U.S. officials last Sunday, they were encouraged by the United States to proceed with the coup.
“They took us at our word and they made a mistake,” Helms declared.
The Senate debate was sparked by a provocative proposal by Helms that would have authorized the President to use U.S. troops to capture Noriega and bring him to the United States to stand trial. Noriega was indicted last year on drug charges by two federal grand juries in Florida. Even though the proposal was defeated by a vote of 74 to 25, Helms said that he had accomplished his purpose by calling attention to the discrepancies.
Beyond the questions raised by Helms, many senators questioned why the Administration had failed to plan how the United States would respond in the event of a coup attempt. Boren said that the Intelligence Committee has demanded such a plan for the last two years.
‘That Is Inexcusable’
“Why hasn’t there been an Administration policy?” Boren asked. “Why hasn’t there been a contingency plan?. . . Why have we not recognized any entity as the legal government of Panama? We had no policy in spite of the fact that time and time again many of us have asked what is this policy. . . . That is inexcusable, inexcusable!”
But Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.), the ranking Republican on the panel, replied that the Administration’s policy was never doubt. He said that the Administration has always had a policy against using U.S. forces to remove Noriega from power.
Cheney, responding to the Senate debate in a television interview, acknowledged that Helms was correct that the United States had refused to respond to a request from the coup leaders to use U.S. troops to prevent Panamanian forces loyal to Noriega from coming to his rescue.
Helms accused the Administration of “tragic inaction.” But Cheney said that the President had good reason to believe that he would be putting American lives needlessly at risk if he ordered U.S. troops to stop the pro-Noriega forces from entering the building where their leader was being held.
Cheney said that he had no information to support Helms’ report that nine leaders of the coup have since been killed. Helms said that the coup leader was killed personally by Noriega.
Many senators said they were confused by the discrepancies between Helms’ version of the events and the Administration’s explanation. But two senators on opposite ends of the political spectrum--conservative Sen. Alfonse M. D’Amato (R-N.Y.) and liberal Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)--insisted that they had received information similar to Helms’ account from Panamanian sources.
D’Amato said that the coup leaders had requested a U.S. helicopter to remove Noriega from the place where he was being held but that they were refused such help by U.S. forces.
D’Amato contradicted Administration officials, including Cheney, who said they did not know for more than two hours whether Noriega was being held by the rebels. He said that American forces could see clearly into the headquarters from an observation post.
Nor did D’Amato accept the argument of Administration officials that they had declined to intervene because the coup leader, Moises Giroldi Vega, was viewed as unreliable. Giroldi had helped put down an earlier coup against Noriega.
“You expect to have choir boys lead an insurrection?” asked D’Amato. “What nonsense.”
Helms charged that when the coup was developing early Tuesday morning, the White House and State Department were preoccupied with the diplomatic visits of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico and Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri T. Yazov. He said that the only person left at the State Department to handle the matter was a relatively low-level deputy assistant secretary.
Although the criticism of Bush came from both sides of the aisle, Senate Democratic leaders sought to avoid a full-blown partisan confrontation with the President over U.S. policy in Panama. Nunn’s resolution was even supported by the Administration as a preferable alternative to Helms’ proposal.
In fact, Bush’s most vocal defenders were liberal Democrats, such as Dodd, who strongly oppose U.S. military intervention in Latin America.
As the debate ended, Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) observed that Bush was being criticized by some of the same Democrats who had criticized former President Ronald Reagan for his use of the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf two years ago.
“Things have changed around here,” he said. “Suddenly this place is filled with hawks.”