Richard Harwood's columns of May 27 and June 3 {"War! (Part 1)" and "War! (Part 2)"} were aimed at my article, "Did Noriega Declare War?" in The New York Review of Books of March 29. Intended to discredit me, they are a discredit to Harwood and The Post. Nevertheless, something can be gained if the issues are made clear and the U.S. invasion of Panama reconsidered.

Harwood flatly denies that the so-called "declaration of war" allegedly made by Noriega had anything to do with President Bush's decision to invade Panama. Harwood writes that the declaration was not "the provocation of 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."

This is simply wrong. Quite a few people tried to hang their hats on that one. Two of the most important were President Bush and Secretary of State Baker.

In his press conference on Dec. 20, Baker referred to the alleged declaration as if it were responsible for the later acts of violence. "If you go back and remember," he said, "that there was a declaration of war followed immediately by the killing of a United States Marine and the concomitant arrest and beating of a Navy lieutenant and the sexual harassment of his wife. These are actual events that took place in the immediate aftermath of a declaration of war."

In his press conference on Dec. 21, President Bush also referred to these incidents which, he said, with "the declaration of war by Noriega," made him decide to invade Panama.

Editorially, The Post and The New York Times immediately reflected the official line. A Post editorial on Dec. 21 backed Bush's invasion and gave as its first reason "the declaring of a 'state of war.' " The Times of the same date made the same connection.

Noriega's alleged declaration was critical to the invasion because a U.S. invasion could not be rationally hung on the death of one soldier and harassment of another and his wife in a period of tension. They were connected with the "declaration" in order to make them seem to be deliberate acts of war.

In fact, these incidents were passed off as inconsequential until President Bush decided to use them to send in U.S. troops. The Post of Dec. 19 reported: "As recently as this weekend administration officials were saying the killing of the American in Panama was an isolated incident, not linked to Noriega's declaration of a state of war on Friday {Dec. 16}. But on Monday {White House spokesman} Fitzwater revised that view, saying the killing was 'symbolic of the brutality and viciousness with which Gen. Noriega has conducted the affairs' of Panama." In fact, deputy Secretary of State Eagleburger had previously called Noriega's alleged declaration of war "a charade, it's nonsense."

Was the killing of the soldier a deliberate act of war? As The Post reported on Dec. 17, the incident occurred when four U.S. soldiers in civilian dress made a wrong turn in a car in front of Panama Defense Forces headquarters. When PDF troops told them to get out of the car, according to the U.S. Army spokesman, the four "panicked and ran," whereupon the PDF troops opened fire, hitting one of the Americans, who died soon afterward. The other three were uninjured and returned to their units.

On Dec. 18, The Post reported, a U.S. Army officer shot and wounded a Panamanian police corporal in a somewhat similar incident, apparently based on a misunderstanding on the part of both men. These incidents were signs of tension, not deliberate acts of war. Did Noriega act after his "declaration of war" as if he had really declared war? In a press conference on Feb. 27, 1990, Lt. Gen. W. Stiner, who had been in command of the Dec. 20 invasion, declared that no arms had been issued to the Panamanian troops until it was learned at the last moment that U.S. forces were about to attack. U.S. planners knew that Noriega had taken no actions to go to war with the United States. Gen. Stiner said that he had hoped to catch the PDF completely by surprise.

Anyone who actually read Noriega's speech of Dec. 15, in which he allegedly declared war, would know that he was referring to the economic warfare against Panama declared by the U.S. embargo in April 1988. It was a rambling, rhetorical performance in which Noriega called for strengthening "the internal front to improve our resistance."

The resistance was described by Noriega as follows: "Our relations with the United States must include facing the people, raising our voice of protest at forums, assemblies, congresses, pulpits, universities, meetings, political parties, unions, professional gatherings, and business groups, as much as possible." The tenor of this speech was known in official circles in Washington because that is the way it was translated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service of Dec. 18.

We need not weep over Noriega's personal fate. We do need to worry about a U.S. invasion of a small, weak country, and the destruction it caused, in order to oust one corrupt ruler whose corruption was subsidized by the United States for many years on the flimsiest of pretexts. That pretext is the issue here, because the deception of the American people is too high a cost for what was accomplished in Panama.

Now that we are six months away from the Panama invasion, it would have been fitting for The Post to reexamine its position and reassess the entire episode. Instead, we have been given the frivolous cynicism of an apologist, not an ombudsman.

-- Theodore Draper