MIAMI - Convicted Colombian cocaine-boss Carlos Lehder said yesterday that two U.S. officials in the early 1980s wanted to buy his private island in the Bahamas for $5 million and turn it into a gun-running center for the Nicaraguan contras.
Lehder's explosive testimony - over strenuous government protests - brought the trial to the brink of the larger political issues surrounding the case of Manuel Noriega, who was arrested by the United States after the December 1989 Panama invasion. He also discussed information about a money-laundering pipeline through Noriega's Israeli business associate, Mike Harari, a widely acknowledged operative for the Israeli intelligence organization Mossad.
The disclosures came on cross-examination by Frank Rubino, the defense attorney for Noriega, who is on trial here on drug-trafficking and conspiracy charges.
As part of his agreement to testify, Lehder dropped a $92 million lawsuit against former Attorney General Edwin Meese and former Drug Enforcement Administration chief Francis Mullen, who Lehder charged had masterminded the plot to kidnap him.
Lehder described a meeting with a U.S. vice consul in Cali, Colombia, in the early 1980s. He said the man, whose name he remembered as Hogg or Hobbs, had been introduced to him by his brother, Fred Lehder, because the two were fellow Vietnam veterans. The vice consul, as well as an unidentified colleague, made the offer to buy Norman's Cay as a contra arms-shipment base, he testified.
Then Rubino, showing a series of excerpts from an unpublished magazine interview, got Lehder to confirm that in return for the sale, the Americans were to "give me a green light to bring in drugs (to the United States)."
Lehder testified he cut off contacts with the two men "because I thought it could be a sting operation to capture me and bring me to the United States."
On the subject of Harari, Lehder admitted having said that the Israeli was helping the cartel on plans to build an apartment complex. "Did you not say, `Without Mike, we could do nothing'?" Rubino asked. "Yes, I did say that," Lehder said, denying that he meant a more sweeping statement about Harari's role in drug trafficking.
Most of the defense ammunition was based on an interview Lehder gave in March 1990 to a freelance journalist working for Playboy magazine. Lehder protested that the interview had been confidential, and also said he had attempted not to incriminate himself in the interview.
Rubino attacked Lehder's motives for testifying, but he also attempted to portray him as a criminal whose testimony was doctored to please the government.
Lehder also introduced himself as the man whose chief responsibility during 1982 to 1984 was to ship cocaine from Colombia through Panama to the United States. Of the other several dozen government witnesses so far, not one has mentioned Lehder's having any role in that operation.