PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli tried to bully the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to turn its wiretapping program on political rivals, a State Department cable released by WikiLeaks said.
Martinelli, a supermarket tycoon elected last year, sent a “cryptic” message to the U.S. ambassador in Panama which said, “I need help with tapping phones,” according to the cable from August 2009 published by Spanish newspaper El Pais.
“He made reference to various groups and individuals whom he believes should be wiretapped, and he clearly made no distinction between legitimate security targets and political enemies,” the cable written by then Ambassador Barbara Stephenson said.
When the ambassador refused, Martinelli complained she was being “too legal” and made an implicit threat to stop helping the U.S. government with anti-narcotics operations in Panama if he could not get help with wiretaps, the cable said.
Martinelli said in a statement on Saturday the cable was a “misinterpretation” and denied asking to intercept politicians’ phone calls. He said the government remained committed to fighting drug traffickers and money laundering in Panama.
The publication of the diplomatic messages is the latest example of the ability of WikiLeaks, founded by Australian Julian Assange, to cause international embarrassment.
A scandal over wiretapping could cause a serious challenge to Martinelli’s popularity. The conservative business leader, who is one of Panama’s richest men, has a nearly 60 percent approval rating. But the U.S. cable expressed worry that Martinelli was willing to bend the law to reach his political goals.
“His penchant for bullying and blackmail may have led him to supermarket stardom but is hardly statesmanlike,” the cable said.
Reporting by Elida Moreno in Panama City and Mica Rosenberg in Mexico City; Editing by Eric Beech
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