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Notes Link North and Effort to Polish Noriega ‘Image’ : Iran-Contra: The previously secret papers suggest U.S. aides sought the Panamanian’s help in getting aid to the Nicaraguan rebels.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former White House aide Oliver L. North, in a meeting with Manuel A. Noriega four years ago to enlist his help for Nicaragua’s Contras, sought to minimize drug-smuggling allegations against the now-deposed Panamanian leader as principally an “image” problem that Noriega would have to solve, newly released documents showed Friday.

Portions of North’s personal notebooks, made public by a federal court under the Freedom of Information Act, suggested that North, as well as State Department and CIA officials, were willing to overlook Noriega’s alleged corruption in return for his assistance on behalf of the Contras, for whom Congress had cut off U.S. military assistance.

Meanwhile, a newly impaneled grand jury was convened Friday in Washington to continue the government’s three-year criminal investigation of the sale of arms to Iran and the diversion of proceeds to the Contras during the Ronald Reagan Administration.

Sources told the Associated Press that the grand jury would attempt to determine the exact roles of Reagan, then-Vice President George Bush and other former Reagan Administration officials in the scandal and to gather information for a final Iran-Contra report.

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The North diaries were released as attorneys for Noriega, currently being held in a federal facility in Miami on an 11-count drug-smuggling and money-laundering indictment, are seeking thousands of similar government records. They contend the documents will show that top U.S. officials condoned Noriega’s drug-related activities in return for intelligence gathering services and other support in Central America.

Because of the elaborate procedures required for release of sensitive records in criminal trials, Noriega’s lawyers have not yet received any of the secret documents they have requested. Even after they obtain them, however, none will become public until Noriega’s trial next year.

The North notebooks, heavily censored by the government to remove potential national security problems, were obtained under court order by two nonprofit groups that have been studying the Iranian arms scandal. The two organizations, the National Security Archive and Public Citizen Inc., had obtained and released an initial 1,400 pages last week and received another 1,209 pages Friday.

The handwritten notebooks, a combined daily log and modified diary kept by North from 1984 through 1986, contain often cryptic phrases that are difficult to understand fully.

It was known that North met with Noriega in London in September, 1986. But the notebooks revealed events leading to the meeting and contained the first details of what the two discussed.

On Aug. 24, 1986, for example, North mentioned a meeting with Dewey Clarridge, then a CIA official with responsibilities in Central America. Referring to Elliott Abrams, a State Department official who was active in supporting the Contras, North wrote:

“Tell Abrams that Noriega has asked for mtg w/ Goode (North’s code-name) re cleaning up image.”

He also wrote that at his meeting with Noriega, he would inform the Panamanian leader about “five steps . . . to clean up (his) image” and would remind him that his “image is critical for FMS.” The latter reference involved Noriega’s apparent desire to receive additional foreign military sales from the United States.

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A week later, at a meeting on Panama of the Restricted Interagency Group composed of North, Abrams and Alan Fiers, another CIA official with Central American duties, North wrote under the heading “Corruption”:

“Drugs/Arms trafficking, Money Laundering, Front Companies.”

Meeting Noriega in London 19 days later, North wrote that the general would help the Contras with “C/T (counterterrorism) . . . courses for commandos, booby traps (and) night ops.” Noriega also offered to collect intelligence on a refinery, an electric and telephone system and an airport, according to North’s notes. Additional notes were deleted by a censor.

The extent to which Noriega eventually helped the Nicaraguan rebels never has been clear, but it is likely to be an issue raised at the general’s trial. Noriega surrendered to U.S. authorities last January, 12 days after U.S. troops invaded Panama.

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Two months after North’s meeting with Noriega--on Nov. 25, 1986--North was fired and his boss, John M. Poindexter, resigned when the Iran-Contra scandal surfaced publicly. North’s notebooks show that he and Poindexter discussed that day whether Israel could be persuaded to accept responsibility for diversion of Iranian arms sale profits to the Contras.

Under the heading, “Call from JMP,” North wrote:

“Would be best if Israel would accept that they were aware that some funds were diverted.”

He also noted, “VP call Peres,” apparently a suggestion that Bush, then vice president, should call Israeli leader Shimon Peres.

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A White House spokesman said he did not know if Bush called Peres that day, although Bush has said he never learned details of the Iran arms initiative until a month later. In any event, Israel never accepted responsibility for diversion of arms-sale profits.

Staff writer Doyle McManus contributed to this story.


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