Noriega's calls to lawyers taped by U.S. authorities


WASHINGTON -- A new dispute erupted yesterday in the case of deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega with the disclosure that the government had recorded some of General Noriega's phone calls from jail to his defense attorneys.

An outraged Frank A. Rubino, the chief defense lawyer, said that he would seek dismissal of federal drug-trafficking charges on grounds that confidential attorney-client conversations had been breached.

But a prosecutor, Myles Malman, told U.S. District Judge William M. Hoeveler in Miami that federal lawyers had not listened to any of the tapes and that the FBI was investigating to determine how copies were obtained and broadcast by Cable News Network.

Outgoing phone calls by prison inmates often are monitored if there are suspicions that they may be planning other crimes, and inmates are alerted to this practice, federal officials said. While attorney-client conversations generally are exempt from eavesdropping, they said, General Noriega frequently has called Mr. Rubino's Miami office only to route calls to associates in Panama.

"Noriega, like all prisoners, signed an acknowledgment of monitoring," and the telephone he uses "has a notice on it that calls are monitored," said Robert S. Mueller, chief of the Justice Department's criminal division.

In addition, Mr. Mueller said, "Noriega was informed that he could properly make an unmonitored call to his counsel by notifying the staff in advance of such a call and requesting that it not be monitored."

However, outside legal experts said that the government, in this instance, appeared to have overstepped the bounds of propriety.

Richard Ben-Veniste, a Washington lawyer and former associate Watergate prosecutor, said that phone conversations between a prisoner and his lawyer "never are supposed to be monitored.

"This strikes at the heart of the criminal justice system," Mr. Ben-Veniste said. "It directly affects a defendant's ability to confide in his attorney, as well as the ability of a lawyer to defend his client."

"A federal inmate still has Sixth Amendment rights unless he's told that all his calls are going to be monitored," said Plato Cacheris, another attorney and former Justice Department official. But Mr. Cacheris contended that "even then, the lawyer-client privilege should not be intruded upon."

The Sixth Amendment contains fair-trial guarantees, including the right to counsel.

A Justice Department source insisted that, as far as he knew, General Noriega never asked that his calls not be taped because he was making a personal call to his lawyer.

Judge Hoeveler, who has expressed a determination to try General Noriega no matter what the obstacles, gave no hint at an impromptu court hearing that he was considering dismissing the case.

"It's becoming more and more difficult in this case to assure that both parties get a fair trial," Judge Hoeveler said.

The judge also directed the government to provide him with more details of the phone monitoring and ordered CNN to stop broadcasting excerpts of the conversations.

Daniel Waggoner, a lawyer for CNN, said Judge Hoeveler's temporary injunction would be challenged, although the network did not air any of General Noriega's conversations with his lawyers.

The segments broadcast dealt with political moves in Panama, a message to the Cuban Embassy in Panama, the transfer of sums of money and concerns about prospective witnesses against him.

However, Mr. Rubino said that CNN also played one recording for him that clearly was a conversation between General Noriega and his defense team. General Noriega was forcibly returned from Panama last January on a federal indictment. He is in a three-room cell at the Metropolitan Correctional Center south of Miami awaiting trial.

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