As a journalist just back from Panama, I was troubled by Colman McCarthy's column "The Price of a 'Just Cause' " {Style, May 20}, specifically, by his statement that the U.S. intervention was "an invasion in which, by conservative count, 2,000 Panamanian civilians were killed and thousands more injured." This is transparent hyperbole intended to score points against the Bush administration for its "pattern of selective obedience to international law."

Obviously, however, some readers accepted McCarthy at face value. Timothy Cooper's letter {Free for All, May 26} referred to the "conservative death count of 2,000 Panamanian civilians" and chided your paper for not reporting this "news" on the front page. What began as McCarthy's rhetorical excess has evolved into ostensible fact.

On March 15, William Branigin's story "Rights Panel Questions Panama Toll, 'No Evidence' Found That Thousands Died" appeared in your paper. Branigin, who reported from Panama City, cited the Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights (hardly White House lackeys), which noted that the Panamanian civilian death toll was probably higher than reported by the U.S. military, but that overall invasion deaths among Panamanian civilians and military might actually have been lower than the 516 deaths estimated by U.S. Southern Command. The independent human rights group further stated that there was "no evidence to support estimates by some in Panama and the United States that several thousand civilians died."

McCarthy's column details two horrible incidents in which Panamanian civilians in Colon were killed or maimed by U.S. firepower. He did not mention, though, that American forces were returning fire from Noriega's Dignity Battalion snipers when these tragedies occurred. Indeed, he ignored the strict rules of engagement under which U.S. troops operated, constraints which provoked the relatively high American casualty rate. While in Panama, I found ample evidence that some Americans -- Army rangers at Rio Hato and Navy Seals at Paitilla Airport -- died because their units did not "prep" their objectives with massive firepower, which would have caused widespread civilian casualties.

Columnists often marshal facts to support their arguments. But they still must construct their rhetoric honestly and not use crudely distorted rumors to make political points. McCarthy breached the line between journalism and demagoguery. -- Malcolm McConnell The writer is an editor for Reader's Digest, who was in Panama to write about Navy Seals.