The White House says it will not provide information sought by congressional investigators about alleged drug dealing by Panamanian ruler Manuel Antonio Noriega unless the scope of the investigation is reduced.
The announcement Thursday by President Reagan's chief spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, came as Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis accused the White House of "stonewalling" the probe by the General Accounting Office.The inquiry could delve into Republican presidential nominee George Bush's knowledge of the Noriega case.
Bush, who is promoting his role in administration anti-drug efforts, has denied having early knowledge of Noriega's ties to the drug world or suppressing information about the matter. For years, Noriega provided intelligence information to the CIA, which Bush headed in the 1970s.
Fitzwater, in Santa Barbara while Reagan vacations at his ranch north of here, said administration officials had "met with the GAO in an effort to narrow the request, which GAO declined to do."
He said the GAO request "asks for a broad range of sensitive intelligence material, information from open law enforcement files, and material reflecting the deliberative decision-making process of the executive branch."
The administration told the GAO on July 13 that it would need to complete a legal review before responding to the request, Fitzwater said.
"The Justice Department has just completed that review and has concluded that the subject matter of the request is beyond GAO's statutory authority," he said. "The Justice Department has also concluded that, even were the request within GAO's legal authority, there are statutory and constitutional objections to providing various specific categories of information requested."
Based on this advice, the White House spokesman said, "We cannot participate in the study as currently designed."
In Miami, Dukakis said, "I think the White House does not want to cooperate because they are embarrassed by this. They should be embarrassed by this."
Nancy R. Kingsbury, who is directing the study for the GAO, an investigative arm of Congress, said the agency has had disputes with the executive branch in the past over specific documents, but it is unusual for the administration to refuse to answer any questions at all.
Nicholas Rostow, legal adviser to the National Security Council, said in a letter to Ms. Kingsbury that the GAO request raised "important statutory and constitutional issues" requiring analysis before the administration could reply.
The Rostow letter was made public by Rep. Bill Alexander, D-Ark., who requested the study along with Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
Rostow's letter was followed by one from State Department comptroller Roger B. Feldman saying the NSC counsel was "acting as the administration's point of contact on this matter" and adding, "All executive branch agencies have been instructed by the White House not to take any action on your request until various legal issues have been analyzed by the administration."
Rostow's office said he was not available to comment.
Kingsbury said the study is part of a larger inquiry examining how information about drug trafficking by foreign officials has affected U.S. foreign policy decisions.