The White House said Thursday that the drug-smuggling indictments against Panamanian ruler Manuel Antonio Noriega were not brought to President Reagan for advance approval but that it views the charges as "a correct course."
Even so, the administration is ignoring Senate appeals and appears intent on offering to drop the indictments in return for Noriega's resignation as defense chief.White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the National Security Council staff, Justice Department officials and State Department officials monitored the process as the indictment against Noriega was being considered earlier this year.
"It wasn't brought to the president for decision," Fitzwater said. "There was no questioning of it by the administration. We still think it's a correct course."
Fitzwater said, "It doesn't do any good to go back and start second-guessing it now. We're standing by it, we're on a course and that's it."
Asked to reconcile his assertion that the administration was sticking by its course with the reported offer to drop the charges, Fitzwater said, "Indictments are very important to putting the pressure on him, (it's) all part of the process."
The State Department's No. 3 official, Michael Armacost, said Wednesday that the objective is to find a way to remove Noriega from politics, and withdrawing the indictments "may represent one means" of accomplishing that goal.
Armacost said that approach "may be a worthwhile way of proceeding" because Noriega would be beyond the reach of U.S. prosecutors so long as he remains in Panama. He noted that the U.S. extradition treaty with Panama does not provide for the extradition of Panamanian nationals.
On Tuesday, the Senate voted 86-10 to approve a non-binding resolution expressing opposition to dropping the indictments.
Armacost made his remarks during a trans-Atlantic interview with foreign reporters sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency. His statement broke what had been a prolonged news blackout by State Department officials on the nature of the discussions with Noriega.
The first indications that dropping the indictments was being discussed with Noriega came last week from Justice Department officials speaking privately.
White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. said Wednesday he is "reasonably hopeful" that the United States will succeed in removing Noriega from power.
"The negotiations are under way," Baker said. "Our policy is that Noriega must go, and indeed that remains our commitment."
Referring to the Senate vote, Baker said he understands the frustration of his former colleagues.
"The fact remains that the administration has a firm, fixed policy that Noriega must go, and we are working very hard to see that that happens," Baker said. "I am reasonably hopeful that we'll get that result, but we don't have it yet."
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that administration officials are now trying to depict the initial Justice Department decision to seek Noriega's indictment as poorly thought out.