Former US ambassador to Panama blames Justice Department for failure to stop Noriega

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Everett Ellis Briggs, the United States ambassador to Panama from 1982 to 1986, claims in a prominently placed op ed in the NYT that the Justice Department was to blame for the failure to stop Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega when it was still possible to do so. He says that he told Attorney General Edwin Meese in 1985 that Noriega, then just a general, was becoming a menace. Meese promised to stop the general, who was involved in drug trafficking, among other crimes. But the US government failed to act properly, says Briggs. He singles out the Justice Department for criticism, noting that Noriega's secret indictment had been leaked, dooming the chance that he could be picked up during a visit to the US:

Washington, having now decided that some sort of action must be taken against the dictator, pinned all its hopes on a renegade officer in the Panamanian military who was supposed to lead a coup — despite this individual’s clear lack of a following inside the military and among the civilian population.

In any case, our government soon threw away whatever leverage it might have had with General Noriega’s inner circle by announcing that the entire Panamanian leadership was now barred from entering the United States. Whatever slim chance we had of persuading a turncoat was dashed. (Shortly before the 1989 invasion, a group of second-level officers did try to oust General Noriega, but the attempt proved a failure, with the leaders summarily executed.)

The real trouble in the years leading up to the invasion was caused by the Justice Department investigation in which I had placed so much hope. The investigation backfired, wrecking the ability of our government to deal with General Noriega without the use of force or the loss of lives.

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