Panamanian leader Manuel A. Noriega said Friday that his negotiations with the United States about his resignation have broken down, while in Washington the Reagan administration remained deeply divided over how far to go in making concessions to him.
At the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney Leon Kellner of Miami told reporters that Attorney General Edwin Meese III met with President Reagan Friday and laid out the arguments against dropping the Florida drug indictments against Noriega. The administration had said it was considering such an action as part of a "plea bargain" agreement under which Noriega would give up power.Separately, William von Rabb, commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service, which conducted the investigation that led to Noriega's indictment, said Friday he felt that the Panamanian strongman "should be prosecuted." If the charges were dropped, von Rabb said, "I would be unhappy."
In Panama, Noriega said that no deal has been reached with the Reagan administration and that talks between the two sides have collapsed.
"Everything fell apart," he told reporters during a visit to the rural Panamanian town of La Negrita. "Everything fell apart . . . . As long as the aggression against Panama persists, as long as there are foreign troops on our territory, the dignity of Panama is above all else, without any faltering, without anything else mattering."
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater rejected Noriega's claim. He said that negotiations between the Reagan administration and Panama were "continuing" but declined further comment. The talks are being conducted by Michael Kozak, a State Department official.
Fitzwater and State Department officials have refused to confirm reports that the outlines of a proposed deal with Noriega include a dismissal of the drug indictments against him. But there were several indications Friday that this is what is under discussion - and that U.S. law-enforcement officials are strongly opposed to such an action.
Kellner, who directed the grand jury that brought one of two drug trafficking indictments against Noriega, said Friday that he met twice with Meese on Thursday and Friday to present the arguments against dropping the charges. Such an action "would send the wrong message to the people of this country," the federal prosecutor said.
Kellner said Meese "told me he also opposed" any dismissal of charges and promised to convey this argument to President Reagan. A Department of Justice official, however, cautioned against drawing the conclusion that Meese would personally urge Reagan not to drop the Noriega indictment.
Von Rabb, the chief of the customs service, lined up with Kellner.
"No doubt over the next few days I will be speaking to people who have a decision-making role in this, and I will be evidencing my opinion," he told reporters. While he noted that "you don't win every one" in government, he said dismissing charges would "make my job more difficult if the press and the American public read it as an uneven application of justice."
In addition to his meeting with Meese, Reagan met Friday afternoon with Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, who reportedly favors negotiating a deal under which Noriega would leave power. Reagan then left Washington for a weekend at Camp David.