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.