Category Archives: Latin America

Noriega in Chains: The George H.W. Bush Connection

  Who is this shuffling old man returning to Panama today some 22 years after being hauled off to a U.S. prison as a generalissimo in shackles?

       Manuel Antonio Noriega, the 77-year-old former Panama strongman, was deposed by invading U.S. forces dispatched by President George H.W. Bush in 1989. Subsequently Noriega was also convicted in a U.S. court of cocaine dealing and conspiracy; and back home, a Panamanian court charged him in absentia with killing a political opponent.

       The rest of his story is shrouded in political double-dealings,
boilerplate and lies. Long-time bed-fellows figure into the story—among them Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell.

      Don’t expect Noriega to make any new revelations or shift the ground in Panama – much less the hemisphere. After interviewing the general extensively and investigating the U.S. invasion and the problematic politics surrounding the U.S. drug war, I’ve concluded that General Noriega all along was but a minor chess piece in a global game and was thrown off the board when he stopped cooperating with his former U.S. masters—he was a CIA asset for years.

       I covered Panama before and after the U.S. invasion and worked at counting the bodies of Panamanians – mostly civilians – who died that
Christmas season. I also sat through Noreiga’s nine-month, 1991-1992 drug conspiracy trial and watched some two-dozen felons–who never actually met the man—earn their get-out- of- jail cards by implicating the strongman in a conspiracy.

And I was eager to interview the imprisoned Noriega with the notion that he would tell secrets out of school about his former employers at the CIA – including George Herbert Walker Bush.

       Noriega was a flop in global gamesmanship – He didn’t know much about the United States. They were willing to come after him.

       The old general’s return to Panama provides finally a proper coda. Whatever crimes Noriega did or did not commit in Panama should be judged by Panamanians. They will now have that chance. My interest was
rooted in the U.S. dimension. I haven’t met anyone who can explain exactly how Panama represented a national security threat to the United States in 1989 sufficient to order an invasion. Twenty five Americans and hundreds, perhaps more than one thousand, Panamanians were killed.

       My analysis of the Noriega case is partly contained in my
interviews of Noriega in the 1994 book, America’s Prisoner. I was
hired by Random House to interview Noriega after he was convicted. Noriega was given the chance to speak in the book – and I was afforded the opportunity to analyze what he had to say. I wrote a separate introduction and afterward to the book that Noriega was not allowed to review or change.

      In all my dealings with Noriega, he lobbed only one bombshell at George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States. As CIA director, Bush had secretly encouraged a covert operation to simulate a nascent guerrilla movement in Panama. The U.S. intelligence agency trained Panamanian military operatives in explosives and demolition tactics, and then dispatched them back to Panama, where they set off some bombs in the Canal Zone. At the time, Gerald Ford was U.S. president. A young fellow named Dick Cheney was his chief of staff, having replaced his mentor Donald Rumsfeld when Rumsfeld became secretary of defense in November 1975.

        The idea was to convince conservatives in Congress that it was
better to sign the Panama Canal Treaties than to face possible
guerrilla warfare and a Panamanian liberation movement. The little
fake bombing mission may have contributed to passage of the Panama
Canal treaties, signed by Noriega’s mentor, General Omar Torrijos, and President Jimmy Carter in September 1977. Noriega at the time was a colonel in the Panamanian Defense Forces in charge of G2 – intelligence.

        Noriega told me that he met with Bush at the Panamanian embassy
in Washington D.C. one month after Carter had defeated Ford in the 1976
presidential election. Ford’s defeat meant that Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were on their way out of office.

        Noriega said: “I was struck immediately by the fact that Bush came alone to
the embassy; no driver, if he had one, aides and interpreter were not
there. He carried no papers, not so much as a pen and a pad of paper.
Ahd I thought. No witnesses…  “So,” he said, “have you done a report on the bombings?” What he meant, I am sure, was I hope you haven’t written a real report about what we did.

“Yes, I wrote a report and sent it to General McAuliffe [the head of
the US. Southern Command, based in Panama],” I told him. I understood
this to mean: Don’t worry, we’re not talking.”

         After Noriega told me this in 1993, I wrote a letter to Bush.
I asked the former president if this was true –five questions
detailing the charge of planning the bombings, CIA training for
Noriega’s men, and the subsequent meeting with Noriega. I expected
Bush to deny everything and to disparage the word of Noriega as a liar
and convicted felon. Instead I received a phone call from Bush’s
spokesman who said: “According to his recollection, the answer is ‘no’
to all five questions. But to make sure, he sent your letter to John
Deutsch [then the Director of Central Intelligence].” The spokesman
would go no further than that.

A few days later, Bush’s spokesman called back, reading a statement:
“The CIA has nothing to add to what President Bush already said.”
I asked the spokesman what that meant, since Bush hadn’t said
anything. As many questions as I asked, the spokesman repeated the
same words. “The CIA has nothing to add to what President Bush already

      I spoke to dozens of people, including CIA, U.S. military and
diplomatic officials on the record. The reporting is worthy of a
separate book, but it can be encapsulated for the moment in the words of
retired General Fred Woerner, who had been head of the U.S. Southern
Command in Panama until mid-1989. He refused an order from the Bush
administration to proceed with an invasion of Panama. He was succeeded
by Gen. Max Thurman. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,
Admiral William Crowe, resigned at the same time and he was replaced by Gen. Colin Powell. Thurman and Powell followed orders.

    At the time, Noriega was no longer the CIA asset who had helped
the United States deal with Fidel Castro and had allowed the United
States to stage operations – sometimes illegally – from Panama to
Nicaragua and El Salvador during the Central American wars. Noriega
was defying Bush, and the president, charged with being weak,
was getting angry. People were referring to him as a “wimp.”

This is what Woerner told me when I asked why the
United States had invaded Panama: “The invasion was a response to U.S.
domestic considerations,” he said. “It was the wimp factor.”

Noriega was sentenced to 40 years in a federal prison, reduced to 30 years when a former CIA station chief, U.S. military adviser and a U.S. ambassador to Panama argued before the judge that he should not have been imprisoned in the United States at all. After a while, Noriega started coming up for parole hearings – every time, the United States argued that he posed a threat to the Bush and to the United States.

As he limps back home today, crippled by age and illnesses, the only threat he represents is that the news of the moment might provoke us to re-examine the evidence and question why the United States invaded Panama in the first place.


Filed under 1, Intelligence, Journalism, Latin America, Politics

Panama, Noriega and the US: The Story Behind the Story.

Manuel Antonio Noriega is about to return to Panama 22 years after he was taken in shackles to the United States. Here’s a reprise of a magazine story I wrote about him. Was Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega really a drug trafficker? Or is it possible he was set up by the U.S. government? Try asking a few dozen people who should know.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1, Bush, Intelligence, Journalism, Latin America, Politics

Catching the Bad Guys — The Pursuits of bin Laden and Pablo Escobar Show Similarities

The killing 18 years ago of Pablo Escobar, the feared leader of the Medellin Cocaine Cartel, and the tracking and Osama bin Laden bear strong similarities — so much so, Steve Coll notes, that CIA operatives studied the Escobar case in the methodical, eventually successful discovery of bin Laden’s hideout.

“As they reset their work, the analysts studied other long-term international fugitive hunts that had ended successfully, such as the operations that led to the death of the Medellín Cartel leader Pablo Escobar, in 1993. The analysts asked, Where did the breakthroughs in these other hunts come from? What were the clues that made the difference and how were the clues discovered? They tried to identify “signatures” of Osama bin Laden’s life style that might lead to such a clue: prescription medications that he might purchase, hobbies or other habits of shopping or movement that might give him away.”

Covering the pursuit of Escobar in the early 1990s, it became evident that Colombia’s security forces were sometimes in conflict with elements of the military, and sometimes it appeared that Escobar was slip-sliding through the dragnet with official complicity. Escobar was fabulously wealthy, as was bin Laden, and neither hesitated at using bribery or violence to buy safety and time. Escobar ultimately was tracked down by making a mistake and using a telephone. Officials used electronic tracking equipment to pinpoint his location. He died in a firefight with security forces. We don’t know how or whether bin Laden tripped up after all these years.

At first the official version in Escobar’s case was that Colombian authorities maintained operational security and conducted the raid. But the chief of Colombian security forces, Gen. Miguel Maza, squirmed when I asked him whether U.S. officials accompanied Colombians when Escobar was gunned down in a roof-top firefight. It became clear that a phantom U.S. helicopter was airbrushed out of the official government account in that case.

Similarly, Pakistani officials were uneasy about describing their knowledge and role in the final pursuit of bin Laden. In both cases, U.S. officials were rather pragmatic on two accounts — they got the job done, no matter the details or whether either foreign government needed to save face. And in both cases, they overlooked the circumstantial evidence: either for corruption or looking the other way, it seemed incredible that either Escobar or bin Laden would not have been detected — both living in plain sight in the middle of a well-patrolled city.

There was another striking parallel between the cases of Escobar and bin Laden — both had become symbols of the violence they engendered, but neither was able to operate his respective terror network by the time they were tracked down.

By that time, smaller, lesser known cells were doing the dirty work, and devising means of pursuing their criminal enterprises. In Escobar’s case, no drug dealer became as well-known nor as powerful after him, but narcotics dealing became almost institutionalized at a low level. U.S. officials never won their War on Drugs, but were able to turn down the volume after Escobar’s death.

It remains to be seen whether bin Laden will have as mighty and newsworthy a successor, but U.S. officials have said many times that pursuing terrorism is a long term effort. Nevertheless, both of these central actors, bin Laden, and Escobar a generation earlier, have gone to early graves.

1 Comment

Filed under 1, Intelligence, Journalism, Latin America, Middle East

Ernesto Sabato, writer who led investigation of Argentina’s ‘Dirty War,’ dies at 99

By Peter Eisner
Ernesto Sabato, 99, a celebrated Argentine writer and intellectual who was chosen to lead an official investigation of thousands of killings by the military during the Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s, and whose long life included careers as a physicist, public servant and artist, died April 30 at his home near Buenos Aires.

Leave a comment

Filed under 1, Journalism, Latin America

Fear without Facts: “Iranian sleeper agents” in the Caribbean

A former U.S. official is pushing the idea that Venezuela and Iran have created a base for terrorists and sleeper agents on the island of Margarita in the Caribbean.

True or not, Roger Noriega’s dire warning about Hugo Chavez and his terrorism connection sounds like fodder for a Johnny Depp movie. (Ayatollah Tourists in the Caribbean?)

Noriega, former assistant secretary of state under George W. Bush, writes in the Washington Post that President Obama is missing the real story on his tour of Latin America. Never fear, Noriega is ready to tell us  “the real” story, which by the way can’t be proved or disproved. It can only be doubted.

Noriega’s ideas and warnings about Venezuela have been featured on the Washington Post opinion pages before. The method is based on agitprop, the underlying principle of the very successful campaign that brought us war on Iraq, a war much less successful than the propaganda campaign. Here’s how you play–first understand agitprop.

“agitprop, abbreviated from Russian agitatsiya propaganda (agitation propaganda), political strategy in which the techniques of agitation and propaganda are used to influence and mobilize public opinion. Although the strategy is common, both the label and an obsession with it were specific to the Marxism practiced by communists in the Soviet Union.

The twin strategies of agitation and propaganda were originally elaborated by the Marxist theorist Georgy Plekhanov, who defined propaganda as the promulgation of a number of ideas to an individual or small group and agitation as the promulgation of a single idea to a large mass of people. ” Encyclopedia Britannica online

Next blend some truths with  information that no one can prove to be categorically true or false. The unnamed sources cited by Noriega are  “from within the Venezuelan regime,” and tell him that a terrorist conclave took place in Venezuela.  “Among those present were Palestinian Islamic Jihad Secretary General Ramadan Abdullah Mohammad Shallah, who is on the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists; Hamas’s “supreme leader,” Khaled Meshal; and Hezbollah’s “chief of operations.”

Cting his conversation with  “a Venezuelan government source,”  Noriega further tells us that “two Iranian terrorist trainers are on Venezuela’s Margarita Island…” The trainers are

“instructing operatives who have assembled from around the region. In addition, radical Muslims from Venezuela and Colombia are brought to a cultural center in Caracas named for the Ayatollah Khomeini and Simon Bolivar for spiritual training, and some are dispatched to Qom, Iran, for Islamic studies. Knowledgeable sources confirm that the most fervent recruits in Qom are given weapons and explosives training and are returned home as ‘sleeper’ agents.”

Noriega, when he was in office, once told me in matter-of-fact terms that Cuban operatives had taken over Venezuela’s intelligence service, which was thereby at the bidding of Fidel Castro. That apparently didn’t fly very well. Now that Iran is the enemy du jour, why not point to Iran-trained sleeper agents, a couple of hundred miles off U.S. shores?

I asked a knowledgeable source about Noriega’s story, but on the record: Vincent Cannistraro, who is former Director of Intelligence Programs for the  National Security Council and former Chief of Operations and Analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency‘s Counterterrorist Center.

“It’s not based on confirmed intelligence,” nor is there a plot or an imminent threat, Cannistraro said. “Noriega has a one-track mind on Chavez and ties to Iran. This is poorly sourced, as usual. We know Chavez and his predilections, but he is not in the Iranian terrorist nest.”

It isn’t easy to prove a negative, as they say, but let’s ask Noriega and the Washington Post opinion pages for evidence. Otherwise, skepticism reigns.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bush, Intelligence, Journalism, Latin America, Middle East, Obama

The answer for the Egyptian crisis–Why didn’t we listen to Bush?

That’s the ticket—Elliott Abrams, a key player in interventionist U.S. policy over the last quarter century, wants us to believe that former president George W. Bush

Elliott Abrams and Dick Cheney

knew what he was talking about on Middle East policy.

His latest paean to Bush Middle East policy is played up prominently on the front page of the Washington Post Outlook section.

Bush understood and empathized with the suffering peoples of the Arab world, writes Abrams, who at the National Security Council, had major input on U.S. policy pre- and post- the Iraq invasion.

Even more, Bush was a visionary, Abrams tells us: In November 2003, half a year after the Iraq invasion, Bush asked this “ ‘Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism? Are they alone never to know freedom and never even to have a choice in the matter?’ “

The problem now, Abrams says, is that President Obama fails to understand Bush’s enlightened view: “…in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty,” Bush said. “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export.”

Abrams’ muddled message is that somehow the Bush administration’s interventionist, pre-emptive war policies were the ticket to world stability. The context, however, is missing from the equation.

Among other things, Bush’s faulty, fraud-based invasion of Iraq and surrounding Middle East policy were a major contributor to a loss of esteem for the United States worldwide. The beacon of light – representing U.S. morality and principles of freedom – that presidents talk about was obscured in the sand. Abrams and his neoconservative allies promoted a war in Iraq based on the lie — destroying Saddam Hussein would promote democracy throughout the Arab world.

Does the current crisis prove that the United States didn’t go far enough, in Abrams’ estimation? This, by the way, is the same fellow who made headlines in the Reagan administration; when working with Oliver North, he promoted the Iran-Contra affair, tried to incite a broader Central American War, and settled for the U.S. invasion of Panama. (He also plead guilty in 1991 to charges of lying to Congress about Iran-Contra)

Abrams is among those who would attack President Obama’s caution in the present, historic changes sweeping through Arab countries. Such criticism is so much wind in the desert. He says that George W. Bush’s calls for democracy in the Arab world were important, as if President Obama would disagree with such a concept. The problem is that Bush’s rallying cry for self-determination came to sound a lot like double-speak and so does Abrams’ argument sound like self-justification after the fact.

The United States under Bush was misguided to consider it could impose U.S.-styled democracy on Iraq or anywhere else by intervention and bombs and occupation. After such efforts, President Obama inherited a very weak hand.

How much influence can the United States have when it has sunken to classic lows of respect among those who seek freedom in repressive lands? Those levels of trust have started to improve lately under President Obama. But to listen to a voice from the interventionist right criticize a centrist president for caution is more than absurd.


Filed under Bush, Latin America, Middle East, Politics

Agitprop and the Art of Selling Lies

It is rare that one gets to witness the early staging of a propaganda campaign.

The elements of the campaign surfaced on Monday (September 27, 2010), first with an opinion piece in the Washington Post intimating—while admitting there was no evidence– that Iran is developing uranium facilities in the jungles of Venezuela.

The second piece of evidence came hours later in the form of an e-mail from a public relations person who thought I still worked for the Washington Post. Writing from Buenos Aires, she offered an interview with the Argentinian prosecutor in charge of investigating the July 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed and hundreds wounded. After a famously botched and controversial investigation, the Argentine government charged in 2006 that the Iranian government was behind the bombing.

The man standing behind the curtain is Roger Noriega, the controversial, right-wing ideologue who was assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under George W. Bush. He was once an aide to Jesse Helms, the late ultraconservative Republican senator from North Carolina. Among his other claims to fame, Noriega was central in the drafting of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the screws of the long-standing U.S. economic embargo of Cuba.

Noriega is a visiting fellow at the prominent right-wing think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, home of such luminaries as Lynne Cheney, Norman J. Ornstein, and Richard Perle, all famous for promoting one of the greatest failures in U.S. history: the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The Iran-Venezuela opinion piece in the Washington Post was written by Jackson Diehl, the Post’s deputy editorial page editor. Diehl gave voice to Noriega’s claim that Iran may be developing uranium facilities in conjunction with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

“Noriega, a soft-spoken man who is known as a hard-line conservative, now works at the American Enterprise Institute,” Diehl wrote. “…he put on a briefing there for journalists, at which he offered what he described as copies of confidential Venezuelan government documents and testimony from undisclosed government sources….Noriega hasn’t got a smoking gun, but his circumstantial evidence is intriguing.”

Neoconservatives—Noriega and his friends at the American Enterprise Institute prominent among them—for years have lobbied for an invasion to topple the Iranian government. After 9-11, the same players, led by Lynne Cheney’s husband, then-vice president Dick Cheney, manipulated the news and public discourse toward the Iraq invasion.

Distortions of U.S. intelligence on Iraq are now etched in history – the neocons have managed to sell the false notion that the Bush administration acted prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the best intelligence available. That is a lie; raw intelligence showed no effort by Iraq to build nuclear weapons after its program was destroyed following the first Gulf War.

The same crowd has similarly labored to overstate Iran’s progress toward the development of nuclear weapons. They seek increased sanctions and eventual military action against Iran.

The Argentinian contact offered the chance for an interview with Alberto Nisman, the prosecutor still investigating the 1994 Jewish community center bombing. Nisman, the message said, “has information of great importance” to provide.

I wasn’t familiar with Nisman, and searched his name on the Web. I found a news story describing his recent meeting with the same “soft-voiced” former American diplomat, Roger Noriega. The story said that Noriega had flown down to Buenos Aires “incognito, in a sudden visit for a confidential meeting with prosecutor Alberto Nisman.”

I doubt that Nisman has any new information, other than to stir up the charges about Iranian involvement in the bombing, and to participate in Noriega’s apparent new attempt to warn that Iran is making new forays into Latin America.

And I doubt that Noriega has evidence on Iranian uranium development in Venezuela. His record is dim. Some of the information may even be true. Even the best liars have to tell the truth at least some of the time, to maintain an appearance, as Stephen Colbert would say, of “truthiness.”

This latest campaign on Iran adds up to a troubling piece of agitprop. The campaign is dedicated to preventing a negotiated outcome on Iran, and rejecting President Obama’s notion, among others, that diplomacy involves talking to enemies as well as friends.


Filed under Latin America, Politics