Remember Manuel Noriega?

Remember the great expense in lives and money the U.S. incurred in invading Panama, deposing Noriega as dictator there, and returning him to the United States for trial as a drug criminal?If all this has slipped Americans' minds, it would be hard to blame them since nearly a year has passed after Noriega was captured in Panama, then jailed in Miami.

Yet at this late date federal prosecutors still don't seem to be much closer to bringing Noriega to trial.

Yes, trial has tentatively been scheduled to start Jan. 28. But prosecutors concede it likely will be many more months before court proceedings actually get under way.

This despite the fact that the evidence against Noriega is said to be voluminous. This, too, despite the extreme seriousness of the charges against him - not only drug trafficking but also assassination, torture, money laundering, embezzlement, illegal sales of visas and passports, plus a variety of other abuses while he was head of the Panama Defense Forces.

How can such long delays in such a notorious case be justified? Actually, they can't be explained away entirely. Only recently did the government conclude that at least some of Noriega's money in foreign banks may not be based on illegal gains and thus can be used to pay for his defense. This tardiness in grasping an obvious point leaves the prosecution open to accusations of intentionally stalling in hopes of forcing a plea bargain.

Now there's the prospect of still more delays as prosecutors and defense attorneys spar over whether or not various secret documents should be declassified as Noriega tries to prove he acted with the knowledge and consent of the American CIA.

Good grief! This potential hurdle was well-known long before Noriega was apprehended and should have been dealt with long ago.

The longer the Noriega trial is delayed, the more inept the prosecution looks and the more the government conveys the impression, rightly or wrongly, that it is pursuing persecution rather than justice. Can't we either fish or cut bait on this case?