Two incidents last weekend involving U.S. personnel in Panama angered President Bush and contributed to his decision to invade Panama last week, according to administration officials. In the first incident, Marine Lt. Robert Paz was in a car with three other civilian-dressed U.S. military officers who "made a wrong turn," according to a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, "and found themselves . . . in front of Panama Defense Forces headquarters" at 11 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 16. The four officers had gotten lost on their way home from a dinner, according to U.S. officials. The car was approached by a group of 40 armed Panamanians and six members of the PDF, according to the officials. When the mob appeared threatening, the driver of the car pulled away amid a hail of bullets from the Panamanians. Paz was fatally wounded by the gunfire. A Navy lieutenant and his wife who were in the same neighborhood near PDF headquarters at about the same time had been detained by PDF soldiers on the street. After the shooting occurred, according to U.S. sources, they were taken to an undisclosed location where they were interrogated. The Navy officer and his wife were held by PDF members for four hours during which time he was repeatedly kicked and she was threatened with rape, U.S. officials say. U.S. officials in Panama said the couple were not available to be interviewed. Members of Congress were briefed on the incidents Friday. They were told that the PDF members who dealt with the Navy officer and his wife were "intoxicated," according to congressional sources. Forty-eight hours before the U.S. invasion, on Dec. 18, Noriega's radio station broadcast a prediction that the Dec. 16 incident with the Navy officer and his wife was part of Washington's preparation of "U.S. and international public opinion for intervention in Panama." The same broadcast, which claimed that the U.S. soldiers had wounded Panamanians and denied that any harm was done to an American, reported that Gens. Maxwell R. Thurman and Mark Cisneros, the two senior U.S. commanders in Panama, had protested the incidents the night they occurred. In a meeting with a Panamanian officer, the radio broadcast said, the two U.S. generals "arrogantly threatened to invade our republic." "The Dec. 16 incidents were the excuse and not the reason for the invasion," one member of Congress said after hearing the administration briefing.
Walter Pincus Walter Pincus reported on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washington Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.