San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Panama government denies asking U.S. to wiretap political foes

PANAMA CITY – The Panamanian government said a U.S. diplomatic cable about President Ricardo Martinelli’s demanding help in wiretapping political opponents arose from a “mistaken interpretation.”

“At no time was she (then-U.S. Ambassador Barbara Stephenson) asked to lend us machines to tap the telephones of opposition politicians,” top Martinelli aide Jimmy Papadimitriu said, commenting on leaked cables disseminated by WikiLeaks.

Stephenson, who had “serious differences” with Martinelli on various issues, misinterpreted the president’s remarks, Papadimitriu told Telemetro television.
More broadly, the presidential aide said the cables do not reflect the reality of relations between Panama and the United States, which continue to cooperate in the battle with drug trafficking and organized crime.

“He clearly made no distinction between legitimate security targets and political enemies,” Stephenson said in a Aug. 22, 2009, report to Washington about Martinelli’s request for wiretapping assistance from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which has a large operation in Panama.

Complaining of Martinelli’s “bullying style” and “autocratic tendencies,” she said the Panamanian leader’s “near-obsession with wiretaps betrays a simplistic and naive attitude toward the criminal investigative process.”

“We will not be party to any effort to expand wiretaps to domestic political targets,” Stephenson told Martinelli, according to the cable.

The ambassador wrote in her report to the State Department that she got the impression Martinelli was implicitly threatening to cut back on anti-drug cooperation if the U.S. government did not assist with the wiretaps.

But when Stephenson told the president that such a threat would damage “Panama’s reputation as a reliable partner,” the cable said, “Martinelli immediately backed off, and said he did not want to endanger cooperation.”

In a statement issued Saturday, the Martinelli administration said Stephenson’s report was based on “a mistaken interpretation by U.S. authorities of the request made for assistance in combating drug trafficking, crime and organized crime.”

Reporting from the U.S. Embassy indicated Papadimitriu told a DEA official that the requested taps would target possible attempts by leftist governments in the region to interfere in Panamanian politics, as well as people under investigation for corruption or drug trafficking.

The secretary of Panama’s main opposition PRD party, Mitchell Doens, said the leaked cables demonstrated the Martinelli government’s “great audacity” and its determination to cling to power using whatever means necessary.

Martinelli is a conservative tycoon who made his fortune running a chain of supermarkets.

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