He's Our Thug, And We're Taking Good Care Of Him

IN TIMES of a national budget crisis, it's nice to know the government can still afford the really important things.

Like a private shower for Manuel Noriega.

You probably read about this. The deposed Panamanian dictator, alleged drug trafficker, and suspected embezzler of millions is being held at Metropolitan Correctional Center in Miami.

And what a spartan life it is. Noriega has a private suite, as opposed to the noisy crowded cells where other inmates are housed. While everyone else clusters around shared television sets, the ex-general watches his own. Other prisoners wait in line to make a call, but Noriega has his own phone.

He also has an exercise bike, a desk, IBM computer equipment, two safes, a Xerox copying machine, and a paper shredder.

The suite and the shower and the exercise cycle are necessary, we are told, because Noriega must be held in isolation for security reasons. The desk and computer equipment are essential, his lawyers say, to help prepare his legal case.

Give the guy credit. Most dope smugglers are thrilled if the guards sneak them the occasional Penthouse or a pack of cigarettes. They wouldn't dream of asking for a Xerox machine and a paper shredder.

The government isn't revealing the cost of maintaining Chateau Noriega, which was custom-designed because an ordinary jail cell was too confining. Nor is it known which of the general's goodies - from deodorant to English-lesson tapes to his beloved Oreo cookies - are paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

So, thanks to Uncle Sam, Noriega is now living better in a U.S. prison than many people are living back in Panama.

Imagine what they must think. We invade the country, scores of civilians die, entire neighborhoods are burned and bombed - all in the quest to capture this pint-size despot who thumbed his nose in our face. When he finally surrenders, we haul him back to Miami and build him his own law office!

Granted, the Miami jail isn't exactly Devil's Island; none of the inmates is dining on cockroach sandwiches. Still, Noriega's got himself a cushy arrangement, and some of his fellow prisoners are peeved. Some stand at the windows and shout insults when he goes for his evening stroll with the guards.

It's probably safe to assume that the general won't be trying out for the prison softball team next spring.

Our government went to such extraordinary lengths to catch Noriega that a judge felt moved to declare him a prisoner of war. As a POW, Noriega is entitled to certain basics; these do not customarily include an IBM personal computer, unless the Geneva Conventions have been updated.

It's hard to quarrel with the assertion that modern office equipment helps Noriega assist his legal defense. The same could be said for every yutz in prison. I'm sure Charlie Manson would be delighted to get his own paper shredder, but it's probably not a terrific idea.

The stakes in Noriega's case are high and go beyond the allegations of smuggling cocaine. He was a crooked troll long before his indictment, but he was our crooked troll. When he goes on trial, so will U.S. foreign policy.

An acquittal would be a disastrous humiliation for the Bush administration. ``Operation Just Cause'' would become known as ``Operation Never Mind.''

Maybe the government is bending over backward so that Noriega's lawyers won't be able to say the case was impeded by Washington. Whatever the strategy, it's gone too far.

So what if the general loves Oreos? Who doesn't? A shower, a phone, a TV - no wonder the other inmates are ticked off.

Maybe someday, if convicted, Noriega will learn what other U.S. prisons are like. Maybe he'll even get a roommate.

Say, a 350-pound biker named Mule.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald.