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The Bush administration is taking a barrage of criticism from Congress and others for failing to act promptly to aid an aborted coup in Panama and seize strongman Manuel Noriega, wanted in the United States on drug charges. Yet Congress itself is as much or more to blame for the lack of swift action.

As Defense Secretary Dick Cheney points out, Congress over the years has inserted itself more and more into any potential covert actions in foreign lands - usually exercising a veto over proposed plans.In 1988, the Reagan administration came up with a plan to have the CIA infiltrate Panamanian exiles into that country to lead a coup attempt against Noriega.

Strong bipartisan objections by leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee killed that operation.

Earlier this year, the Bush administration asked for funds for a covert operation to overthrow Noriega. Again, the Intelligence Committee turned thumbs down on the idea.

Fearful of any repeats of the Nicaragua morass or any backlash from a CIA-assisted coup like the one years ago in Chile, Congress essentially prefers a hands-off approach.

There are undoubtedly good arguments for keeping a tight rein on such foreign adventures, but Congress cannot then turn around and blame the administration for not doing thevery things that Congress has opposed.

It is a no-win situation for the president.

If he tells Congress about planned covert operations, Congress routinely shoots them down.

If he doesn't tell and something goes wrong with a covert operation, officials of the administration are hauled before investigating committees, a la Oliver North - and threatened with jail for violating some congressional edict.

If he does not plan any covert operation and looks at every situation with caution, he is then sharply criticized for inaction.

Just what is a president supposed to do if every choice - from doing something to doing nothing - is wrong in the eyes of Congress?

The congressional critics of Bush in the Panama affair had better decide exactly what they want before they condemn the president for not doing it.