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‘The Panama Deception’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 17, 1992

Watching "The Panama Deception," Barbara Trent's disturbing new documentary about the U.S. government's 1989 invasion of Panama, one wonders why damaging questions about the Bush and Reagan administrations' involvement have not come up in this year's presidential campaign.

The best explanation is that the film's allegations of misconduct, mismanagement and illegal actions by the government are without substantiation -- that is, without conclusive legal substantiation -- for a convincing case to be made. Still, the issues raised in this meticulously researched investigation, which explores the long political relationship between the United States and Panama, both before and after the war, are plausible enough to lead us to the conclusion that the complete story of what happened in Panama has not yet come to light.

The allegations that Trent (who also directed "Cover Up: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair") and her collaborators make here are certainly inflammatory. Some, like the authorization of payments to then-Col. Manuel Noriega, who was the main CIA contact in Panama during the '70s and '80s, are not new. That George Bush, as the CIA director for President Ford, established a relationship with Noriega, placing him on the CIA payroll, has been well established. It's also a matter of historical fact that the Reagan administration reinstated Noriega after Stansfield Turner, President Carter's director of the CIA, had ordered an end to payments, and, in addition, raised Noriega's salary to $100,000.

Trent's main point is that if, in the current language of the campaign, a tyrant like Saddam Hussein was coddled right up to the eve of Desert Shield, then the government was guilty of a similarly disastrous relationship with Noriega, who until he became an obstacle to U.S. interests in Central America -- particularly in the supply of arms to contra bases in Costa Rica -- was considered a major ally.

But beyond that, "The Panama Deception" claims that the stated purpose of the invasion -- that is, to restore democracy to this troubled area -- is patently absurd, and that, in essence, the American people were lied to so that the government might remove a pesky impediment to its policies in the area.

Also, the movie suggests, the action itself, which was played up by the media as a smashing success, was not nearly as tidy and efficient as we were led to believe, with perhaps thousands of Panamanian civilians killed, many of them murdered by American troops and shoveled into mass graves. (The official U.S. estimates of Panamanian deaths -- 220 civilians, 314 soldiers -- are blatantly false, the film charges.) , Trent and writer David Kasper support these claims with the findings of several independent humanitarian groups and the eyewitness testimony of countless Panamanian citizens, who claim that not only were atrocities committed by American soldiers operating outside their legal jurisdiction, but also, according to medical reports, many sustained wounds that could not have been made by conventional weapons, suggesting that chemical weapons and even lasers were used in the invasion.

Because the American press was largely shut out of the conflict, what actually happened during the three-day conflict remains shrouded in mystery. As a result, following the course of the events laid out by the filmmakers is a bit like eating an artichoke: Peeling back one layer only lays bare another. According to the film, capturing Noriega was never one of the major goals of the invasion; the primary American motive was the elimination of Noriega's militant goon squad. Nor was the action merely an act of retribution for the death of an American soldier, who, the Los Angeles Times reported, was a member of a group known as the "Hard Chargers," whose mission was to provoke attacks against Americans, thereby opening the door for retaliation.

According to Trent's findings, the invasion was an elaborately engineered setup, designed to provoke an international incident and give the United States a chance to get out of the Carter-Torrijos treaty returning control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians by the year 2000, flex its military muscle and conduct a test run for new technologies. In other words, it was belligerent, completely unnecessary, and, as the United Nations concluded, in complete violation of international law. And, the filmmakers charge, because the United States has reneged on its commitment to make financial compensation to civilian victims, thousands are still homeless, and human rights violations continue.

Depending on a single source such as this one is always dangerous; there's the possibility that both sides are engaging in a propaganda war. But "The Panama Deception" does a superb job of documenting its case -- which if only partially true has the distinct smell of a rat.

Copyright The Washington Post

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