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December 26,  2000
Behind Colin Powell's Legend: Part Four

By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon

The Commander

On June 21, 1989, in secret, the Justice Department promulgated an extraordinary legal opinion, asserting the president's right to order the capture of fugitives from U.S. laws even if they were living in foreign countries, even if the arrest meant ignoring extradition treaties and international law.

The opinion had specific relevance to U.S.-Panamanian relations because a federal grand jury in Florida had indicted Panama's military leader, Gen. Manuel Noriega, on drug-trafficking charges.

The legal opinion also would influence the course of Colin Powell's career. The four-star general had left Washington at the start of Bush's presidency in 1989. He had taken charge of Forces Command at Fort McPherson in Georgia.

By August 1989, however, President George H.W. Bush and his defense secretary, Richard Cheney, were urging Powell to return to Washington where he would become the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell accepted the new assignment.

His first day on the new job was Oct. 2, 1989 -- and Powell immediately joined debates about whether to intervene in support of a home-grown Panamanian coup attempt led by Maj. Moises Giroldi against Noriega.

"The whole affair sounded like amateur night," Powell wrote in My American Journey. "Cheney, [Gen. Max] Thurman and I ... agreed that the United States should not get involved."

Bush accepted the advice of his military advisers. With only minimal U.S. help, the coup failed. Noriega promptly executed Giroldi.

In the wake of the coup attempt, Bush came under fierce criticism in the news media and in Congress. TV's armchair-warrior pundits had a field day mocking Bush's supposed timidity.

On The McLaughlin Group, conservative Ben Wattenberg charged that Bush’s only policy was “prudence, prudence, prudence. Prudence is not a policy.”

The New Republic’s Fred Barnes chimed in that Bush’s policy “is ‘when in doubt, do nothing.’ It was a massive failure of nerve. And then they come up with these whiny excuses. ... If this were a baseball game, the fans would be going -- the choke sign.”

Another pundit, Morton Kondracke, offered a joke line about the president. “Most of what comes from George Bush’s bully pulpit is bull.”

In Congress, Bush did not fare much better. Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., taunted him as the “Revlon president” for offering only cosmetic solutions. Rep. David McCurdy, D-Okla, declared: "There's a resurgence of the wimp factor."

According to Bob Woodward's book, The Commanders, Powell was stunned. He had never seen "piling on of this intensity, and across the whole political spectrum. It was as if there was a lynch mob out there."

Even more unsettling, Powell saw his own leadership at the JCS jeopardized by Washington's super-macho political environment of the late 1980s.

Neither Bush nor Powell would make the same mistake again. They quickly built up U.S. forces in Panama, and the administration began spoiling for a fight. "We have to put a shingle outside our door saying, 'Superpower Lives Here'," declared Powell.

An Incident 

In mid-December, the tensions between the United States and Panama exploded when four American officers in a car ran a roadblock near the headquarters of the Panamanian Defense Forces. PDF troops opened fire, killing one American.

Another American officer and his wife were held for questioning. After their release, the officer alleged that he had been kicked in the groin and that his wife had been threatened with rape.

When word of this humiliation reached Washington, Bush saw American honor and his own manhood challenged. He certainly could imagine, too, the pundits hooting about his cowardice if he didn't act.

Powell also saw the need for decisive action. On Dec. 17, he recommended to Bush that a large-scale U.S. military operation capture Noriega and destroy the PDF, even though the assault might result in many civilian casualties and violate international law. The authorization for the attack was found in the Justice Department legal opinion from almost six months earlier.

On Bush's orders, the invasion began on Dec. 20, with Powell and Cheney monitoring developments at the Pentagon. The high-tech American assault force, using the F-117 Stealth aircraft for the first time, incinerated the PDF headquarters and the surrounding civilian neighborhoods.

Hundreds of civilians -- possibly thousands, according to some human rights observers -- perished in the first few hours of the attack. An estimated 315 Panamanian soldiers also died, as did 23 Americans. But Noriega eluded capture.

Best Spin

Despite the temporary setback, Powell followed his dictum of putting the best spin on a story. Stepping before cameras at the Pentagon, Powell declared victory and played down the disappointment over Noriega's disappearance. "This reign of terror is over," Powell declared. "We have now decapitated [Noriega] from the dictatorship of his country."

In the following days, as U.S. forces hunted for the little dictator, an edgy Powell demonized Noriega over the supposed discovery of drugs and voodoo artifacts in his safehouse. Powell started calling Noriega "a dope-sniffing, voodoo-loving thug." [The white powder would turn out to be tamale flour, however.]

When asked once too often about the failure to capture Noriega, Powell told a reporter to "stick it."

The tragedies on the ground in Panama could sometimes be worse. On Dec. 24, shortly after midnight, a nine-months-pregnant Panamanian woman, Ortila Lopez de Perea, went into labor.

She was helped into the family Volkswagen which was marked by a white flag. With her husband, her mother-in-law and a neighbor, she headed to the hospital.

At a U.S. military roadblock on the Transisthmian Highway, the car stopped. The four Panamanians requested an escort, but were told that wasn't necessary. After being waved through, they drove another 500 yards to a second checkpoint.

But at this spot, young American troops mistook the speeding Volkswagen for a hostile vehicle. The soldiers opened up with a 10-second barrage of automatic rifle fire.

When the shooting ended, Lopez de Perea and her 25-year-old husband Ismael were dead. The neighbor was wounded in the stomach. The mother-in-law, though unhurt, was hysterical. The unborn baby was dead, too.

The U.S. government would acknowledge the facts, but refuse any compensation to the family. The Southern Command concluded that its investigation had found that the incident "although tragic in nature, indicate[s] that the U.S. personnel acted within the parameters of the rules of engagement in effect at that time."

On the same day as the tragic shooting, Manuel Noriega finally re-emerged. He entered the papal nuncio's residence and sought asylum.

The United States demanded his surrender and bombarded the house with loud rock music. On Jan. 3, 1990, in full military uniform, Noriega surrendered to U.S. Delta Forces and was flown in shackles to Miami for prosecution on the drug charges.

With Noriega's surrender, the Panamanian carnage was over. Two days later, the victorious Powell flew to Panama to announce that "we gave the country back to its people."


In his memoirs, Powell noted as downsides to the invasion the fact that the United Nations and Organization of American States both censured the United States. There were also the hundreds of civilian dead. They had been, in effect, innocent bystanders in the arrest of Manuel Noriega.

"The loss of innocent lives was tragic," Powell wrote, "but we had made every effort to hold down casualties on all sides." Some human rights organizations would disagree, however, condemning the application of indiscriminate force in civilian areas.

"Under the Geneva Accords, the attacking party has the obligation to minimize harm to civilians," one official at Americas Watch told us. Instead, the Pentagon had shown "a great preoccupation with minimizing American casualties because it would not go over politically here to have a large number of U.S. military deaths."

But for Inside-the-Beltway "players," there was no political price to pay for excessive violence against Panamanians. The pundits had nothing but praise for the effective use of military force. Powell’s star was rising, again.

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