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Sound and fury over US covert Panama plan

The sounds of fury are ringing from several corners over leaked reports that the United States Central Intelligence Agency was planning covert actions to oust Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega of Panama. Panama's opposition Civic Crusade is outraged, saying that it makes their movement appear to be an instrument of the Reagan administration. Members of Congress and Reagan administration officials are pointing fingers at each other over the leak. And, of course, Panama's government is using the reports to try to gain support from the Panamanian people and other governments.

``We don't need another contra movement,'' exclaimed exiled Civic Crusade leader Aurelio Barria, referring to reports that the US is providing money to opposition forces.

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Speaking from Miami, Mr. Barria added: ``These leaks create the expectation here and in Panama that someone else will solve Panama's problems.''

Other crusade officials were concerned that the reports could endanger some Panamanians whom General Noriega could accuse of complicity with the US.

When told of these objections, a Washington source close to the Panama situation expressed equal outrage, saying: ``The nerve of those people! They want the US to take care of `its monster,' Noriega, but as soon as the plans become public....''

According to various newspaper reports, President Reagan signed an order earlier this month authorizing a plan of action by the CIA designed to weaken the rule of Noriega and his associates. The plan reportedly includes additional economic sanctions, psychological warfare, and CIA support for an effort to promote dissent among Noriega's troops.

The commander of the Panama-based US Southern Command, Gen. Fred Woerner, recently authorized the updating of a manual on psychological operations, according to a knowledgeable source. The manual details measures aimed at both the civilian and military sectors in Panama, the source said.

Some observers say the leaking of the CIA plan is itself an attempt at psychological warfare aimed at scaring Noriega. Given the Reagan administration's track record of failure in efforts to oust Noriega, few say that more saber-rattling will frighten the military strongman.

Still, says one US analyst, ``It does remind him that the battle's not over.'' The analyst went on to question the ultimate wisdom of making Noriega such a target. By isolating Noriega in its efforts, the US may be pushing his powerful Strategic Military Council to move against Noriega and run the country as a junta, the analyst said.

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On Capitol Hill yesterday, leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee accused the Reagan administration of ``setting up'' members of Congress so they would appear to be sources of the leak. But, said Sen. David Boren (D) of Oklahoma, Congress could not have been the source. ``[We were] already receiving questions from the press before we had the briefings'' from the CIA, he told reporters.

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