In the Afterword to my recent article, “The Constitution in Danger,” I wrote that “one of the reasons for the invasion [of Panama] was Noriega’s declaration of war’ against the United States.” I based this alleged fact on President George Bush’s press conference on December 21, 1989, in which he said one of the things that had made him decide on the US armed intervention was “the declaration of war of Noriega.”
As I have now learned, Bush’s statement was, at best, a half-truth, at worst a flagrant distortion. On December 15, Noriega had not simply declared war on the United States. He said, in effect, that the United States had declared war on Panama, and that, therefore, Panama was in a state of war with the United States. Just what Noriega said was known or available in Washington by December 16 at the latest. How Noriega’s words came across as a simple declaration of war is a case history of official management of the news and negligence by the press.
The key passage in Noriega’s speech on December 15 accused the President of the United States of having “invoked the powers of war against Panama” and “through constant psychological and military harassment of having created a state of war in Panama, daily insulting our sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He appealed for “a common front to respond to the aggression,” and stressed “the urgency to unite as one to fight against the aggressor.”
The resolution on December 15 by the Panama Assembly also took this line—“To declare the Republic of Panama in a state of war for the duration of the aggression unleashed against the Panamanian people by the US Government.”
Clearly, Noriega said that the US had declared war on Panama by its previous actions, for which reason it was necessary for Panama to defend itself. He did not say that Panama was unilaterally declaring war on the United States. At the time, it seemed infantile for Noriega to have pitted puny Panama against the United States. Noriega had plenty of reason to expect US retaliation for the failure of the coup against him on October 3, 1989, in which the United States had taken half measures that made it seem hopelessly indecisive and inept. (US forces, for example, failed to close off the one road in Panama City that the forces loyal to General Noriega used to free him.) After this fiasco, Noriega had plenty of reason to expect another attempt in which President Bush would take no chances of failure.
There is no reason to weep over Noriega’s fate, but there is reason to question the way his words were manipulated in order to justify the US invasion. For this, the US press was partly responsible.
The treatment in The New York Times was grossly inadequate. The Times did not mention Noriega’s “declaration of war” until December 18. It did so in a dispatch from Washington by Thomas L. Friedman. He alluded to it indirectly by citing a statement by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney: “We’ve seen General Noriega brutalize the people of Panama, crack down on his civilians and military alike after the latest coup attempt, designate himself the leader of the country, and declare a state of war with the United States.” If a reader did not follow this sentence to the very end, he would not learn about the so-called declaration of war even on December 18.
On December 19, another story, by Andrew Rosenthal, also from Washington, reported a statement by Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, that General Noriega on Friday, December 15, had “declared that a state of war existed between Panama and the United States.” No effort was made to cite what Noriega had actually said or the context in which he had said it. The news was conveyed only in the words of US spokesmen, Cheney, Fitzwater, and finally Bush.
One gathers that the editors of the Times did not take Noriega’s “declaration of war” very seriously or they would have paid more attention to it. It certainly did not appear to be a potentially major justification for a US invasion.
The Washington Post did somewhat better. In a story by William Branigin from Mexico City on December 16, it reported that the Panamanian National Assembly had “declared the country to be ‘in a state of war’ with the United States because of American economic sanctions.” The statement was relegated to page 21. No attention was paid to Noriega’s speech of December 15. Secretary Cheney’s statement was reported on December 18, on page 20. On December 20, Fitzwater stated that President Bush decided to act after “Noriega declared a state of war with the United States.”
Neither the Times nor the Post told its readers what was truly most revealing about the reaction in Washington to the Panamanian actions on December 15. On that day, Reuters, to its credit, reported in a story by Michael Gelb:
“Today’s action is another hollow step in an attempt to force his [Noriega’s] rule on the Panamanian people,” spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters.
“I don’t know what it can mean different…. I don’t think it changes anything from our point of view,” he added.
“I don’t think anybody here considers it important enough in terms of impact,” he said when asked if Bush had been told of the developments. “He went home early because of his throat.”
Earlier in the day, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger dismissed the Panamanian action as meaningless.
“I don’t really think they could get much worse,” Eagleburger said about US–Panamanian relations. “As far as we are concerned there is no government in Panama anyway.”
“It’s a charade, it’s nonsense,” he added.
In effect, Washington officialdom was right the first time. Noriega’s so-called declaration of war was a “charade,” presenting no threat to the national security of the United States. It was only after President Bush decided to launch an invasion that Noriega’s so-called declaration of war was seized on as a casus belli. If it had been properly reported, and the context given, the Bush administration could not have gotten away so easily with its own “charade.” For some reason, the Panamanian statements were reported from Washington and Mexico City, not Panama City, where presumably it would have been possible to put them in a more discriminating perspective. Instead, administration officials were permitted to control the news and make it seem that we were waging war against Noriega because he had had the nerve to declare war on us.
The cream of the jest was provided by Lieutenant General W. Stiner, the commander of the task force that invaded Panama on December 20. In a news briefing at the Pentagon on February 27, 1990, according to The Wall Street Journal, he revealed that the commanders of the Panama Defense Forces (PDF) had not issued arms to their troops until they learned of the coming US invasion at the last moment. Just before the invasion was launched, Noriega himself had allowed one of his aides to set up a meeting at midnight with a prostitute at a motel near the main US drop zone at Tocumen International Airport outside Panama City. The US forces almost caught the PDF completely by surprise: they had even hoped to catch PDF units sleeping in their barracks. General Stiner claimed that the US troops suffered casualties as a result of a breach of security at about 10 PM on December 19.
But Noriega is supposed to have “declared war” on the United States five days earlier. The US command could plan to surprise him because he had done nothing to put his forces on a war footing. In fact, Noriega’s “declaration of war” was nothing but empty rhetoric—as Eagleburger and Fitzwater first said it was—and the only ones who made a pretense of taking it seriously were in Washington, not Panama City.