Last week's column doubtless is engraved -- every jot and tittle -- on the reader's brain. So it is superfluous to recall that the issue is whether The Post, The New York Times and others hoodwinked the American people and gave the Bush administration a phony pretext for the invasion of Panama on Dec. 20.

How did we do it? By misrepresenting the Panamanian manifesto of Dec. 15, 1989, declaring that "a state of war" existed with the United States.

That declaration, like my prose, is engraved on the brains of at least three or four red-blooded Americans: it attributed this "state of war" to aggressions against Panama by the United States.

Theodore Draper, writing in The New York Review of Books, asserts that "Noriega had not simply declared war on the United States. He said ... that the United States had declared war on Panama, and that, therefore, Panama was in a state of war with the United States." This "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.' "

We've always known that those New Yorkers talk funny. Perhaps they read funny, too, because The Post did report the declaration "properly" and completely in the context Mr. Draper so devoutly desired -- i.e., it was dismissed as hot air. The day after the "war" was declared -- Dec. 16 -- a presidential news conference was held. One question dealt with this new peril to the realm:

"Mr. President, General Noriega of Panama ... has just this week declared war on the United States. How do you respond to this last outrage of General Noriega?"

The President: "Well, I don't respond to it. I noticed that he was made supreme leader, or something of that nature. It has not changed our view of him at all. He is an indicted narcotics dealer, and he ought to get out... ."

A few hours after this news conference there occurred the provocations or casus belli the administration may have been seeking. It was not, as Mr. Draper maintains, "Noriega's so-called declaration of war"; no one tried to hang his hat on that one. It was rather the killing of an unarmed American officer and the wounding of another by Panamanian forces, followed within 24 hours by the detention and beating of a third officer and the sexual harassment of his wife.

The invasion of Panama followed, beginning at approximately 1 a.m. on Dec. 20. It was announced at a press briefing by Marlin Fitzwater at the White House at 1:30 a.m.:

Q: Marlin, on what legal basis was this operation undertaken?

Mr. Fitzwater: The legal basis was, first of all, the president's responsibility and duty to protect lives of American citizens... . There is a threat to American citizens, there is a threat to our rights under the Canal Treaty and the president has acted on that basis... .

Q: Are we basing this on the fact that Noriega declared war against us ...?

Mr. Fitzwater: We are basing this on the ... pattern of aggression in recent days that we think is quite threatening to American citizens in Panama... .

Mr. Bush and his defense secretary took the same line.

In The Post's bannered story of Dec. 21 reporting the invasion and President Bush's explanation for it, the now-infamous declaration of war was referred to once -- in the 48th paragraph of a 52-paragraph epic. It was not referred to at all in a front-page analysis in The New York Times by R. W. Apple Jr. of how and why the invasion occurred. And nothing was made of it in the days that followed.

Is it too bold to suggest that Mr. Draper is all wet?

When he tackles this subject again (the New York intelligentsia are said to never quit) he might unravel for us the more interesting mystery of why President Roosevelt's words were not "properly reported" in 1941. Contrary to popular belief, Mr. Roosevelt never asked for a "declaration of war" against Japan or against Germany or Italy, for that matter. Instead, he asked that a "state of war be recognized" by Congress.

Gen. Noriega obviously plagiarized FDR last December. Maybe THAT's why he's in such a heap of trouble.