In the wake of public disclosure of corruption charges directed at Panama's military leader, Reagan officials are searching for ways to encourage political change in Panama without jeopardizing key United States interests there, sources here say. Meanwhile, though, the administration is maintaining public silence on allegations of widespread official corruption by Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. The allegations against General Noriega, which were detailed in reports last week by the New York Times and NBC News, include money-laundering and drug smuggling. Noriega is also accused of providing intelligence information to Cuban authorities and arms to a Colombian rebel group called M-19.
Some sources also have implicated Noriega in the brutal slaying last September of Hugo Spadafora, a prominent opponent of Panama's military regime. Dr. Spadafora's beheaded body was found in Costa Rica after he charged that Noriega was involved in illegal drug operations.
Panama's government has officially denied the recent allegations. (According to the Associated Press, in a diplomatic note released Tuesday by the office of Panamanian President Eric Arturo Delvalle, the US government said, ``We do not want to speculate about the allegations themselves. The government of Panama already has made its commentaries on the charges that have been made in these accounts.'')
The press disclosure of the allegations against Noriega ``makes a very difficult problem for us that could have been predicted,'' comments retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and an expert on Caribbean Basin matters. ``The greatest surprise to me is that people are surprised.''