Steve Bannon, General Noriega and the Perils of Perusing Classified Information


Steve Bannon, General Noriega and the Perils of Perusing Classified Information





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Before the invasion of Panama in 1989, I had already been involved in the Noriega case for almost a year. Ricard Gregorie, who was the initial prosecutor in the case, told me that if the case were dismissed against the General for political reasons that the case would be dismissed against my client as well. So there was really nothing for me to do. An invasion seemed unlikely: the United States had, after all, pledged not to invade Panama in the "other" Panama Canal Treaty, the Treaty Concerning the Neutrality of the Panama Canal. U.S. and Panamanian military conducted joint patrols. There were areas under each country's joint jurisdiction. The Panama Canal itself was operated by an agency that was bi-national in structure. 

The United States invaded anyway. The law was pushed to the side. In war the laws are silent, Cicero said, "Silent enim leges inter arma." On the evening of December 19, U.S. Forces seized Torrijos Airport, the country's main international airport as well as the domestic airport at Punta Paitilla. General Noriega kept a small jet there. Fifty-caliber bullet holes, fired during the invasion, made the jet inoperable. The only other nearby airport was at Howard Air Force Base, a twenty minute ride from Balboa Heights, the headquarters of the Panama Canal.  
An Israeli intelligence colonel had been sent to Panama to organize the Panamanian Defense forces along the lines of the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces. His name was Michael Harari; he was responsible for organizing the death of Black September's "Red Prince," Ali Hassan Salameh. Salameh was blown up by car bomb in Beirut that killed eight people, including four innocent bystanders. The use of a car bomb by Israeli intelligence to murder a political opponent in the heart of Beirut then permits Hezbollah today to claim that Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri was murdered the same way. Ironically, this type of "same acts" evidence was used against Noriega at trial. 
On the night of December 19th and on the following day, there were no commercial flights out of Panama. There were no general aviation flights either. The airport at David remained open, but it was hours away and closed. Two days later Colonel Harari appeared in Jerusalem. Somehow he had gotten out. 
There was no longer any possibility of the case being dismissed, so I prepared for trial. Two officials from the Department of Justice, claiming to be "security officers" invited me to apply for a classified clearance so that I could receive classified information that would be released to the defense. If I didn't get a clearance I wouldn't get to see that evidence. I wouldn't be able to participate in the meetings with the other attorneys. "Everyone else has agreed," they told me. There were a few strings, of course. My use of classified information would be limited and subject to the government's control. If I didn't follow their rules I could go to jail. I couldn't discuss this information with anyone who did not have a clearance, not even my client.
I was the only lawyer who declined. The others rushed to get their clearance, to receive the imprimatur of the prosecuting authorities proving they were worthy to be entrusted with the government's holy secrets. 
"I don't need it," I told them.
Douglas Vaughn was working for and with me as an investigator on the case. Doug is also a journalist. While copying documents in Panama at my request, he came across a secret inventory of seized Panamanian documents that the government had claimed did not exist. The revelation of the "secret inventory" went viral.
Vaughn's discovery spooked the government into thinking that I had access to a vast cache of classified material. Because I had not accepted the government's clearance, I must be out of control. Then I revealed the existence of a secret NSA facility dug out of mountain in Panama. The facility, known as the "Tunnel," was inside the Quarry Heights military base, the U.S. Southern Command's headquarters in Panama. I included a diagram of the Tunnel's location as a good faith demonstration that the facility did in fact exist.
The Justice Department Security Officers were not happy. They went to the district judge seeking an order for my arrest. Fortunately, Judge Hoeveler knew me. Moreover, he was a very reasoned, calm judge. He asked his courtroom deputy to get me on the phone instead, but I would have to come to the courthouse, immediately. 
Judge Hoeveler convened a classified improptu hearing where I was asked to reveal how I knew about the Tunnel, why I had given the information to the press, was I a traitor or what and how much more classified information did I have?
Federal court questioning of this type can unnerve anyone. I explained to the judge and the assembled lawyers--all the others had come for the show--that the diagram had come from the Canal Zone phone book. When I lived in Panama, I used to pass the facility every week on my way to the Quarry Heights Officer's Club to meet my friend, the crime novelist Michael Wolfe, who had been a DoD civilian in Vietnam. "The bartender's name is Gus," I told Judge Hoeveler. "He makes a mean mojito."
The Department of Justice Security Officers were unfamiliar with the Canal Zone phone book and Gus's mojitos. They probably didn't really know Michael either, since he wrote under a pseudonym. His books, including Man on a String, an Edgar Award winner, are enjoying somewhat of a resurgence in these days of Nam-stalgia.
Judge Hoeveler chastized the Department of Justice Security Officers and pointed out that classified information is rarely published in the phone book. 
It would have been worse for me had I accepted a clearance. Because Noriega's lawyers had accepted classified clearances, they consented to the government's control. The penalties for violation of the rules relating to classified information are severe, as Edward Snowden found out. The next time wouldn't be a friendly call from a courtroom deputy summoning a hearing at the courthouse at 301 N. Miami Avenue; it would be an arrest order and indictments. The press criticized me anyway.
I did not understand why Noriega's lawyers accepted government constraints and control. My guess is that the lure of acceptance into the classified information club was just too strong. Noriega didn't need access to U.S. government classified information. He had been the source of that information for many, many years. 
Before he became head of the Panamanian Defense Forces, Noriega was head of G-2, the intelligence section of the chiefs of staff. He held this position since 1968, when General Omar Torrijos led a coup against Arnulfo Arias, the duly elected president of the country. Noriega held the position under Torrijos and continued to hold the intelligence portfolio for the rest of his military career. 
In this position he liaised with American intelligence while Central America was burning. The CIA did not sit back and do nothing when the Sandinistas fought Somoza for power in 1979. In that year the Shah of Iran was overthrown and came to Panama; Panamanian intelligence was privy to discussions among the United States, the Shah and Anwar Sadat. In Panama, the Shah and his wife dabbled in the occult. This information was held by General Noriega, but never reached Khomeini in Tehran. 
El Salvador was a battlefield in those years, and Honduras had to be kept happy lest it withdraw its consent to the Air Force C-130's from Panama that overflew Contra bases in its territory, engaging with Sandinista regulars and burning out barrels on .50 caliber machine guns mounted on those planes. Panama was a key player in the U.S.-backed Contra mission. 
Noriega knew about the secret deal that Jimmy Carter had made with Panama to get the Shah out of the United States in hopes the American hostages in Tehran could be freed. Carter claimed that there was no quid pro quo. Sure. Everyone knows that Panama has long been a haven for ousted Persian princes.
Before the invasion of Panama, one of Noriega's lawyers, Raymond Takiff, traveled to Panama City to meet with him. On his return, he held a briefcase up and loudly told the press that it was full of secrets that would be revealed if the United States were to try to invade, that Noriega "had the goods" on the United States. 
The problem was the government had already infiltrated Noriega's defense team. The only way the government could silence him was to get to his lawyers. 
Though Noriega didn't know it at the time, Takiff was working as a government informant. Whatever secrets were in the briefcase fell into the possession of the government as Takiff desperately tried to stay out of jail by pleasing his control agents by revealing what his client told him. When the truth of his betrayal became public, Takiff claimed that he had kept his work as a government informant separate from his work as Noriega's counsel. No one believed him or the government's denials. Dismissing the case against the general would have been a profile in courage, but Judge Hoeveler accepted the government's claim that one thing had nothing to do with the other.
Steve Bannon was, up until a few days ago, Donald Trump's strategic advisor at the White House. Trump had even named him to a permanent seat on the National Security Council, the curia of American spies. To hold these positions, Bannon had to accept a classified information clearance. 
So when Bannon was forced out, claiming that now it's "war" against his enemies, I yawned. Like Noriega's lawyers, Bannon held a clearance. His writings are subject to lifetime vetting by the intelligence community. If they don't like something he plans to publish, he can be thrown in jail. If he publishes anyway, they can take as much of his money as they can grab, as they did to Frank Snepp, John Stockwell, Victor Marchetti and Valerie Plame.
So it's not likely you'll hear much from Steve Bannon in the future. The intelligence czars will see to that. Just as they curbed Noriega's lawyers. The trial of the General was but another episode in that Orwellian justice theater starring the public enemy du jour, whether it be General Noriega, Pablo Escobar, Osama bin Laden, El Chapo or Vladimir Putin. 
Bannon will be muted. He should have learned. 
And if you are ever asked to handle a case involving classified information and are offered a clearance:
Just. Say. No. Because if I had accepted a clearance, I wouldn't have been able to write all of this, would I? Last time I checked there is still a copy of the Canal Zone phone book in the Dade County public library, but they left a lot out. Like the Beirut part, for instance. Or how to fly out of a country in the middle of a U.S. invasion. 
Views stated above are my own and not those of any company or national intelligence agency.