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Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters in Houston, Texas, on the Situation in Panama

December 30, 1989

Q. What about Ortega, Mr. President?

The President. Well, actually, the colonel down there expressed regrets, in spite of the fact that they found AK - 47's and rocket launchers and automatic machineguns. That shouldn't have happened, and that has been explained to the Nicaraguans. And it's a screwup. And they have expressed their regrets that it took place. But negotiations continue, and I am satisfied that -- working closely with the Vatican. Marlin made an appropriate statement yesterday, and I stand by that. General Scowcroft has been working this problem all week, and we're in very close touch with the Vatican officials. So, don't be misled by a spokesman's comment here and there. The problem is being worked, and I am satisfied that our determination to see this man brought to justice will prevail.

Q. What are you going to do about those U.S. diplomats?

The President. Well, that's the problem when you have a mistake like this, but life goes on. I don't know what we're going to do about that, but when you find those kinds of weapons caches -- even though, I think in retrospect, shouldn't have gone in there -- it makes you wonder exactly what our young men are up against down there.

I don't know what they need rocket launchers for in a man's house. But nevertheless, I've said we shouldn't have gone into that Nicaraguan mission, and they have expressed their regrets. And so, it's the way it is. And I would like to know what the man's doing with rocket launchers and grenades and uzis and automatic weapons up to his eyeballs in his house. Having said that, we should not have gone into the diplomatic premises -- but it's a little tense there still. We can handle that.

Q. Are you leaning on the Vatican too hard, Mr. President? Is there a chance -- --

The President. No. We're in good, close communication with the Vatican. So, Tom [Thomas Raum, Associated Press], don't be misled by a spokesman from the Vatican, there's a little polarization there. We have good relations with the Vatican, and if need be, I'll get on the phone to the Holy Father. I don't think that it'll come to that because we're satisfied that they understand the severity of the problem. They are trying to work it out. They have a history of giving asylum to people who are fleeing, even thugs like Noriega. But they don't want troubled relations with us, and we don't want troubled relations with them. So, give us a little time. The matter will resolve itself. And the man at least is off the streets, not threatening the lives of American kids down there, no longer into some of the horrible things he was in before. So, we need a little time to resolve this in a diplomatic way, and all the wheels of diplomacy are turning right now.

Q. Mr. President, this spring you indicated that you would accept Noriega going to a third country where he could be free of prosecution. What has changed now that that's no longer acceptable?

The President. The death of one marine, the brutalization of a wife of a lieutenant, the death of a lot of our kids -- that's what's changed. And that's why I feel very strongly that we're not back to square one. We're not back to the premilitary action phase. And we're not going to go back to it, either. We want this man brought to justice. There is a good indictment against him. And so, we're going to pursue every avenue to bring him to justice, and I'm satisfied that it will happen. In the meantime, we've got very delicate diplomacy there. We don't want to undermine the duly elected regime in Panama. Part of what we wanted to do was see the restoration of democracy. So we're not going to go in there and run roughshod over the Panamanians, either.

They're working hard. They're restoring order; they're bringing tranquillity. We're sending a high-level economic mission down there this week to help restore the Panamanian economy. And so, we want to respect that sovereign right that they have and their democratic process. So, we have a complicated, three-way conundrum at this point, but I am satisfied that we will solve it.

Q. Any idea when some of the troops are going to be coming home?

The President. Very soon, I would think, for some of them. And the sooner that all of them are out, the better, as far as we're concerned. But we don't want to act too precipitously. As we all know, they did a superb job. The matter has been a restored peace and tranquillity, for the most part, to Panama, and that's good. I would like to, at year-end here, salute them once again for what they've done, and I will have an opportunity to shake hands with some of those kids that were wounded down there over in San Antonio tomorrow. But I think the sooner we can have our troops that went down there out, the better it will be.

And of course, we have a large force in SOUTHCOM. They will remain, but we will go forward. I have said to Latin America, and I've said to the Panamanians, this clears the way for the orderly implementation of the Panama Canal treaty. I would expect that the democratically elected government would send up a name that would be ratified by the United States Senate. And all of that is positive. So, when we have these, what I would call momentary glitches, let's not get too concerned. We've got to work the problem, but I don't want to overreact. And I certainly don't want to be juxtaposed against the Vatican because I understand their position. And I am satisfied that they understand mine -- or ours -- the position of the United States. So, when I get questions, Are they doing this or that?, I try to not respond to them because we've worked closely with them in the past, and we'll continue to work closely.

So, I think it's time to cool it on both sides and let the diplomatic process bring this matter to a happy resolution. And I'm confident that it will; I really am. I'm not trying to mislead you at all. I really believe this matter will be resolved, in one way or another, to the satisfaction of the United States. And I have the responsibility as President for worrying about those families who lost loved ones. And it would not be fair, and it would not be proper, to make some kind of a deal that stops short of seeing this man brought to justice -- Noriega.

Q. How about bombarding the Vatican Embassy with rock 'n' roll music? Didn't that aggravate the situation?

The President. I think it aggravated the people inside, and it stopped, I understand. [Laughter] It would have aggravated me, I'll tell you. I'm not into rock n' roll -- country music, maybe, that's different. [Laughter]

Q. Any decision on where the Presidential Library is going to go?

The President. No decision.

Note: The exchange took place at 1 p.m. at the Houstonian Country Club. In his remarks, President Bush referred to Marlin Fitzwater, Press Secretary to the President; and Brent Scowcroft, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. A reporter referred to President Daniel Ortega Saavedra's objection to the search of the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama City by U.S. forces. In the morning, President Bush traveled to San Antonio, TX.

George Bush, Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters in Houston, Texas, on the Situation in Panama Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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