Manuel A. Noriega’s taped prison conversations were apparently leaked to CNN by a person assisting the Drug Enforcement Administration, a federal source said.
The Miami Herald on Saturday identified the source of the leak as Jose I. Blandon, a longtime political opponent of the former Panamanian leader and a potential witness against him.
The FBI is trying to determine who gave the tapes to the network, which aired some of them over the last month.
The Cable News Network’s broadcasts of the tapes, including one that contained conversations between Noriega and his attorney’s office, triggered a court battle over CNN’s right to publish versus Noriega’s right to a fair trial.
U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler determined there was nothing in the tapes that would jeopardize Noriega’s right to a fair trial, and transcripts of the tapes were released Thursday.
CNN has refused to say how its reporter in Panama obtained the tapes, which were made at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Miami. The prison records telephone conversations of all inmates.
The DEA subpoenaed 162 tapes of Noriega’s conversations in its efforts to obtain more evidence. Between Feb. 1 and Nov. 8, Noriega made about 1,400 calls, the newspaper reported.
Quoting unidentified sources, the Herald reported that Blandon assisted the DEA in evaluating the tapes. Blandon is a one-time senior intelligence officer in Panama and Panama’s consul general in New York. He testified before a Senate committee in 1988 that his former boss protected U.S.-bound cocaine shipments.
The deposed dictator’s taped conversations were filled with code words that the DEA hoped Blandon could help crack.
Noriega’s attorneys have filed a defense motion with Hoeveler asking that the indictment be dismissed on the grounds that the government eavesdropped on a privileged attorney-client phone call, froze Noriega’s money so he could not pay for his defense and tried to entrap his attorneys with a bribery offer.
In the prosecution’s response filed Friday, U.S. attorneys said the defense provided no evidence on the bribery charge and the government was acting in good faith to unfreeze some money that could be used to pay Noriega’s legal fees.
“The United States maintains that no privileged calls were ever taped because Noriega was fully advised that all of his telephone calls would be monitored unless he followed a specific procedure for privileged calls to his lawyer,” U.S. Atty. Dexter Lehtinen said. “Noriega never invoked that procedure, therefore, all of his calls were properly monitored.”
Noriega is awaiting trial on charges of taking $4.6 million in payoffs to protect the cocaine trade passing through Panama from Colombia to the United States.