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CONGRESS MUDDLED CRISIS, CHENEY SAYS

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Congressional limits on covert action thwarted the Bush administration in its handling of the Panama crisis, says Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, who faults lawmakers for interfering in the White House effort.

The former Wyoming congressman spent much of last week on Capitol Hill defending the administration against charges it mishandled the abortive coup against Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Cheney took the offensive, complaining lawmakers' involvement in an area "really not their bailiwick" undercut the executive branch's ability to deal with the crisis.

"We had situations here where members of Congress were literally calling agencies downtown, or even people in Panama, as these events unfolded, demanding information. That creates all kinds of problems," Cheney said.

He declined, however, to name any names among his former colleagues.

The defense secretary, who served in the House for more than 10 years, said that although members of Congress have legitimate oversight roles, "they ought to refrain from trying to intrude in the process while it is still unfolding."

Adding to the problems of congressional interference were the comments made by lawmakers based on information that was usually "a small piece of the total picture," and in some cases, inaccurate, Cheney said.

They "certainly complicate our lives when they run out and make public pronouncements in front of the press, knowing only half of what there is to know," the defense secretary said.

As an example, Cheney cited the assertion that Noriega was offered to U.S. officials.

Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., repeatedly has contended that was the case, although Cheney and other administration officials say they've found no evidence that such an offer was ever made.

Questioned about clashes this past weekend between the administration and members of the Senate over restrictions on covert action, Cheney said officials have been handcuffed in their ability to act.

"There's no question in my mind that we've reached a point where it is a complicated business to try to function in this area," he said. "There's complications that have developed over the years because of various and sundry rules and restraints."

Choosing his words carefully after expressing concerns about divulging classified information, Cheney described a hypothetical situation in which the United States, learning about a planned coup, assesses those involved and their strategy as well as positions its forces.

"You can't really do that without congressional approval. These days it's very difficult to get that," Cheney said.

On the defense budget, Cheney said he would recommend a presidential veto if House and Senate negotiators produce legislation that gives inadequate financing to strategic programs such as the B-2 Stealth bomber and adds money for weapons Cheney has proposed canceling.