White House ignored Panama warning


PANAMA CITY -- U.S. military and security agencies warned the White House more than a week early that President Bush faced serious danger if he carried out plans to speak at a public rally during his brief stop in Panama and urged that his appearance be canceled, U.S. and diplomatic sources say.

fTC "Within 72 hours after Bush's staff told us he would be coming here, SouthCom [the U.S. military's Panama-based Southern Command] sent the Pentagon a 'trip book' saying the president should not speak [in public], in part because of the likelihood of anti-American demonstrations and because the National Police were not trained in riot control," said one U.S. military expert.

The warning was disregarded, another U.S. source said in a telephone interview from Washington, "because Bush's political advisers ignored the risk; they wanted television pictures showing Bush speaking to cheering Panamanians about returning democracy to Panama."

But what was shown on television were pictures of Mr. Bush and his wife, Barbara, coughing and wiping their eyes, being rushed off the speakers' platform Thursday amid clouds of tear gas fired at a few hundred anti-U.S. demonstrators by Panamanian police.

The situation developed when about 400 demonstrators lined up behind a barbed-wire barricade a block from the speech site. Intelligence sources said they were mostly members of former dictator Gen. Manuel A. Noriega's army, the Panama Defense Forces, pro-Noriega unions and leftist students.

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