President Bush admitted Saturday that it “was a screw-up” for U.S. troops to search the Nicaraguan ambassador’s residence in Panama City, but he unrepentantly added that a weapons cache found inside “makes you wonder exactly what our young men are up against down there.”
While Bush said that U.S. military officials have apologized to Managua’s envoy in Panama City, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega moved Saturday to expel 20 U.S. diplomats from the Nicaraguan capital to protest the U.S. breach of diplomatic law. He also ordered the non-diplomatic staff, mostly Nicaraguans, cut from 320 to 100.
At about 4 p.m. Friday, roughly 100 U.S. troops surrounded the ambassadorial residence, which was clearly marked “Republica de Nicaragua Embajada,” and after much confusion, entered the house. After an aggressive 20-minute search, soldiers received word from Washington to withdraw and left abruptly, leaving behind the weapons and a stunned Nicaraguan ambassador, Antenor Ferrey, at the scene.
The incident was deplored as a flagrant violation of diplomatic procedures by Ambler Moss, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama. He was referring to the extraterritoriality of diplomatic missions, which puts them strictly off limits to police and other security forces and grants diplomats immunity from arrest.
“There’s a pattern on the part of U.S. troops of total disregard for the fundamental rules of diplomatic behavior, whether it’s out of ignorance or not,” Moss said during a telephone interview. “If this is the kind of thing our troops are going to do, they need to be under tighter control by someone who understands what are the boundaries of acceptable behavior.”
Officials in Washington, however, continued to defend the Friday evening search and condemned Ortega’s move as an “irresponsible overreaction” to the incident.
The expulsion of American diplomats from Managua is “clearly motivated by Nicaraguan desires to reduce the size of our mission before Nicaraguan elections in February,” a statement released Saturday morning by the State Department charged.
The search of the ambassador’s house followed a tip from a Panamanian informant that people were taking arms into the residence and “were doing drugs,” according to one Administration official.
The U.S. search team found no drugs, according to a knowledgeable U.S. official. But they found rocket-propelled grenade launchers, an anti-tank weapon, more than two dozen rifles, 1,300 rounds of ammunition and three boxes of grenades--an arsenal that prompted Bush to wonder aloud on Saturday why Managua’s envoy was “up to his eyeballs” in weapons.
The incident threatened to become a setback--or at least a major embarrassment--in the U.S. effort to gain international support for the Dec. 20 invasion of Panama. The American troops achieved one key goal, the toppling of the military regime of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega--but Noriega has eluded capture, having gained temporary refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama City.
“When you find those kinds of weapons caches, even though I think in retrospect that we shouldn’t have gone in there, it makes you wonder exactly what our young men are up against down there,” Bush said. “I don’t know what they need rocket launchers for in a man’s house.”
One Bush Administration official said that the search was undertaken after two days’ consideration of the reliability of the informant, who had accurately tipped U.S. military authorities to another arms cache.
“On Dec. 27, it was found that procedures were in place for a legal search,” said one Administration official. “This is not as perfect as a U.S. search and seizure, but where there’s a likelihood that there are members of Dignity Battalions (Noriega’s paramilitary street gangs), or an arms cache, based on the report of a reliable informant, we will go in and conduct a search,” the official added, noting that similar conditions have justified searches elsewhere in Panama.
When soldiers arrived at the house, with a diplomatic emblem clearly posted on the front, they broadcast four warnings for those inside to evacuate. When at first no one inside responded, the troops fired warning shots, according to one Washington official.
Ferrey then appeared in a car with diplomatic license plates. But U.S. troops told officials that Ferrey could neither produce diplomatic identification nor tell them the first name of the Nicaraguan ambassador--the man Ferrey was claiming to be.
American troops, checking with the operation center of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, were told by a State Department liaison officer there that the Nicaraguan ambassador’s residence was not the house they had surrounded but an apartment in a high-rise building five miles away.
More than two hours after the troops arrived at the residence, they moved in, overturning household items in the search for arms. After 20 minutes, Washington-based diplomats warned the troops that they “may be” at an ambassadorial residence and instructed them to leave with apologies.
Bush, however, was unapologetic as he emerged from a round of golf at the exclusive Houston Country Club with National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Houston oilman William S. Farrish III, a longtime friend and financial adviser of the President, and golf pro Doug Sanders.
The President said that a U.S. military officer in Panama had “expressed regrets, in spite of the fact that they found AK-47s and rocket launchers and automatic machine guns.”
“When we have these, what I would call ‘momentary glitches,’ let’s not get too concerned,” Bush added.
With about 100 people looking on, Bush--attired in khaki trousers, a red shirt and beige sweater on a damp, cloudy day--sought to brush aside suggestions that the Administration was encountering rough sledding in its dealings with the Vatican. U.S., Vatican and Panamanian officials are engaged in talks about the future of Noriega, who is wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges. The toppled dictator took refuge Christmas Eve in the Vatican embassy in Panama City.
“We have a complicated, three-way conundrum at this point,” Bush said, while expressing confidence that it could be resolved. “It’s time to cool it on both sides.”
A Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro, on Friday called the United States an “occupying power” and criticized American troops, which have surrounded the Vatican embassy, for their tactics.
On Saturday, the Vatican secretariat that is overseeing negotiations about Noriega’s future said that “close contacts” continue with the United States “in a spirit of serene collaboration” to find a “just and mutually acceptable solution.”
Bush also sought Saturday to minimize any friction.
“We’re in good, close communication with the Vatican. So, don’t be misled by a spokesman,” he said, while conceding, “there’s a little . . . polarization there.”
“We have good relations with the Vatican, and if need be, I’ll get on the phone to the Holy Father,” Bush said.
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Friday that Bush, who spent Wednesday, Thursday and Friday on a hunting and fishing vacation in South Texas, has not spoken by telephone with Pope John Paul II since the crisis began.