I am too timid and poorly armed to involve myself in the intellectual wars that so often rage through the canyons of Manhattan. But, alas and alack, those bashings spill over from time to time to the backwaters of Washington, bruising us innocents in the process.

A communication from one of the Upper West Side war lords -- Robert Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books -- has an ominous ring to it:

"I write to you about some reporting -- or failure of reporting -- in The Post that badly seems to need correction, although none has been made, so far as I know. The case concerns what President Bush described on December 21 as a 'declaration of war' against the US by General Noriega. The enclosed article by Theodore Draper in the March 29 issue of the New York Review showed that Noriega's actual speech on December 15 did not declare war on the US in the way President Bush led the public to believe; and Draper showed as well that neither The Post nor The New York Times accurately reported what Noriega said... . We may be running something further about it."

Before responding directly to these grave allegations, it is necessary to share with the Manhattanites a glimpse of the nature of the press-government dialogue in Washington on the infamous day -- Dec. 15, 1989 -- that the war declaration (or whatever) came out of Panama. The scene is the White House, where news hounds devour their daily feeding from the hand of Marlin Fitzwater.

Mr. Fitzwater: First of all, the President sent a message to Yelena Bonner on the death of Dr. Sakharov ... "On behalf of all the American people, I would like to extend to you and your family our dearest condolences ..."

Q: Excuse me, Marlin, ... did you mean to say "dearest condolences?"

Mr. Fitzwater: Where were we?

Q: Top, first line.

Q: "Deepest" or "dearest"?

Q: Are you going to put that out, Marlin?

Mr. Fitzwater: I am sure it's "deepest." If I said dearest, I'm wrong ...

Q: Given the sudden nature of Dr. Sakharov's death, only three days after he had called for a general strike ...I know this has got to be on people's minds ...

Several Voices: Foul play.

Mr. Fitzwater: Spit it out there, Nick.

(Laughter, cross talk) ...

Q: Who's going to the funeral? ... General Scowcroft? ...

Mr. Fitzwater: (Laughs). The night traveler? ... Scowcroft gives new meaning to "Amahl and the Night Visitors." All right. Where are we here? ... For the rest of the day the president's schedule is open ...

Q: Is he going shopping or anything?

Mr. Fitzwater: He promised me no movements today ... (Feigning announcer-type voice) "We have here the president of the United States marked down to $79.90." (Laughter)

Q: You're thinking of Reagan. (Laughter) ...

Q: CNN reported last night that when former president Reagan used to push the button every year for the Christmas tree here at the White House, that it was ... a fake button and that ... some person from the Park Service {lit it} ... down at the Ellipse. Is that correct? (Laughter) ...

Mr. Fitzwater: I'm going to let thatgo ...

Q: Does that -- is your nonanswer an answer?

Mr. Fitzwater: Huh?

Q: Is your nonanswer -- should we take that as an answer?

Mr. Fitzwater: Well, sort of. (Laughter)

Whatever else these scintillating exchanges reveal, it should be perfectly clear that the Panamanian "declaration of war" was not uppermost on the minds of the gumshoes of the press corps on Dec. 15; nor was it being waved as a bloody shirt by the White House. At a meeting later that day Mr. Fitzwater, in response to a question, told reporters that the Panamanian action was "a hollow step ... I don't think it changes anything from our point of view." The president was so unconcerned he took the afternoon off.

The Post was so unconcerned it published an account of the Panamanian action on page 21: "A Panamanian legislative body formed by Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega today named him head of government, formally granted him sweeping powers and declared the country to be 'in a state of war' with the United States because of American economic sanctions... . 'We will sit by the {Panama} Canal and watch the bodies of our enemies float by,' Noriega said."

The New York Times was so unconcerned it didn't bother to report the "state of war." So ends Part 1 of this gripping saga.