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Back in the 1950s, when Dwight D. Eisenhower occupied the White House and communist subversion was very much on American minds, a young Panamanian eagerly offered the United States his services as an informer on leftist activity among fellow students.

That, by most accounts, is how Manuel A. Noriega first came to be an ``asset' of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency - barely out of his teens but already displaying a taste for power and the better life.From that beginning his covert career seemed typical enough: a potential agent identified in college, patiently nurtured with financial aid and occasional contacts with his ``control,' and finally deployed on major assignments when, as the agency all along had hoped, he advanced to a position of influence.

But given Noriega's particular aberrations, one of Washington's more unyielding riddles is how he managed to remain on the agency's track during at least six U.S. presidential administrations.

Indeed, Noriega's confrontations with the United States government are far better known than his contributions to U.S. security - whatever they may have been - during his three decades as a paid agent of the CIA.

But if cost is fair measure, the contributions must have been deemed substantial in the shadowy currency of covert operation.

In 1976, for instance, Noriega scored a notable if not historic coup against U.S. intelligence. That was during President Bush's one-year tenure as CIA director at the windup of the Ford administration.

In the jargon of the trade, Noriega, then chief of intelligence of the Panamanian Defense Forces, ``turned' a U.S. Army sergeant assigned to the National Security Agency. In return for $1,000-a-month payments over several years, the ``singing sergeant,' as he became known in the intelligence community, and some colleagues handed over details of the top-secret U.S. listening post in the Canal Zone that covered all of Latin America - and coincidentally disclosed that the Panamanian leaders' private conversations were bugged during negotiations on the Panama Canal treaties.

Bush visited Panama in the wake of the debacle and conferred with Noriega. Noriega remained a CIA ``asset.'

But even before that - as early as 1971, according to Noriega biographer John Dinges - he ``almost' was indicted in the United States for drug trafficking.

Dinges says U.S. drug agents, amply armed with evidence of his involvement in the narcotics trade, came up with an alternative proposal that included the ``option' of ``rubbing (him) out.' The plan was not approved, he said.Instead, the administration of President Nixon informed Panama's president of the evidence against Noriega, but there is no evidence Noriega was disciplined.

``He never met an intelligence service he couldn't con,' Francis McNeil, a retired deputy assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, said in an interview Friday.

Precisely what tasks Noriega carried out for the CIA remain the subject of controversy.

Still, given the U.S. stake in Panama - particularly after ratification of the treaties handing the canal over to Panama by century's end - it might have been deemed sufficient merely to have one of the country's key leaders on the covert payroll.

But starting with the Reagan administration, in 1981, Panama became the central base for military and intelligence operations in Latin America. Authoritative sources say President Reagan's CIA chief, the late William Casey, worked personally with Noriega as he developed U.S. plans for toppling Fidel Castro and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.

As Panama's chief of intelligence until 1983 and army commander after that - and power behind the civil throne throughout - Noriega arguably was a crucial figure in all U.S. hemispheric strategy.

He was so crucial, in fact, that one senior official testified that Casey successfully ordered the drug charges against Noriega ``put on the shelf' until after the CIA had accomplished its mission in Nicaragua.

Casey was not alone in this. A former National Security Council aide told Newsday Friday that the State Department also wanted Noriega kept in power because his regime functioned relatively smoothly and caused no problems to the canal.

But Noriega's clout in Washington began dwindling about the time of Casey's May 1987 death - although government sources insist it was the anti-Noriega uprising that took place in June 1987 that ended his usefulness as an asset.

Apart from his role in keeping Panama stabilized on America's behalf, some accounts add that Noriega was a priceless conduit for information from Cuba, Panama's nominal ally.

Still others say he was actually a double agent, feeding U.S. intelligence to Castro - including the singing sergeant's material on U.S. communications-intercept capability.

There are reports, too, that Noriega provided an important staging ground for U.S. covert operations in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Jack Blum, former counsel to a Senate committee that investigated Contra arms shipments, said that the claim of Noriega's aid to the Contras ``doesn't wash because the southern front of the Contras was a disaster.'

One persistent report claims Noriega had a $200,000-a-year stipend from the CIA. Dinges, who spent the last two years researching his biography of Noriega, said he found no one willing to confirm that figure but said there were indications he received payment from different U.S. sources for carrying out or assisting various projects on a case-by-case basis.

In the absence of dependable sources within government, Dinges, a Latin American specialist on the staff of National Public Radio in Washington, has become a leading arbiter of the confusing data on Noriega. By a stroke of publishing luck, Random House is bringing out his book, ``Our Man in Panama,' next month.

``There's a lot of conspiracy theories about reasons why the United States cannot move against Noriega,' Dinges said Friday. ``If you check them out, a lot came from Noriega himself.'

But he also tells interviewers that he does not believe Bush's assertion that he was unaware of the extent of Noriega's drug involvement until two Florida grand juries returned indictments in February 1988. He is reluctant, however, to be more specific before his book is published.

In December 1983, then-Vice President Bush renewed his personal acquaintance with Noriega in a meeting also attended by then-Panamanian President Ricardo de la Espriella. A Bush aide said Espriella brought up U.S. news reports on Panamanian drug trafficking and Bush replied, ``I wasn't aware of them.'

In December 1985, then-U.S. ambassador to Panama, Everett Ellis Briggs, briefed Bush on the ``growing problem' of Noriega, according to a Bush aide. Only days previously Briggs had cabled Washington specifics of the drug-running charges against Noriega. At the time, one of Bush's assignments was the war on drugs.

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