The killing of a U.S. Marine lieutenant by Panamanian forces last December, an event used by President Bush in part to justify the invasion of Panama, was not the unprovoked act of "aggression" portrayed by the White House, according to American military and civilian sources.
Instead, it was a step in a pattern of aggressive behavior by a small group of U.S. troops who called themselves "the Hard Chargers" and who frequently tested the patience and reaction of Panamanian forces, particularly at roadblocks, the sources said.
The Pentagon categorically denied this version of the incident, saying it was "absolutely without foundation."
"This is an old story. It's been checked out, and there's nothing to it," a Pentagon spokesman in Washington said after speaking with officials of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama.
"The story you've got from somebody that these guys were a vigilante group trying to provoke an incident--that is absolutely false," Maj. Gen. Marc A. Cisneros, deputy commander of the Southern Command at the time of the invasion, said in a recent interview.
But sources here insist that their account is the true one. And although the Pentagon characterizes the accusation as an old story, it has not been publicly circulated.
They added that although "the Hard Chargers" acted on their own, their tactics were well known by ranking U.S. officers, themselves frustrated by what then seemed to be the unwillingness of Washington officials to strike back at Panamanian provocations committed under dictator Manuel A. Noriega.
The contradictions make it clear that even a year after the invasion, key questions remain about the events leading up to the decision to commit U.S. forces in Panama. Were American lives really at stake, or was Washington seeking an excuse to carry out a long-delayed military action?
The incident occurred last Dec. 16 when four American officers, dressed in civilian clothes and driving a private car, were stopped at a Panamanian military roadblock close to the headquarters of the Panama Defense Forces, or PDF.
According to an official American statement issued the next day, the four officers became lost while driving to a downtown restaurant from the U.S. Army base at Ft. Clayton near the Panama Canal.
The Defense Department statement asserted that the men were unarmed and that when they were stopped at the roadblock, they were harassed by Panamanian soldiers and civilians. When the Panamanian troops tried to pull the Americans from their car and then pointed weapons at them, the American officers drove away, the statement said.
The Panamanian soldiers opened fire, slightly injuring one of the Americans in the ankle and hitting another, 1st Lt. Robert Paz, 25, of Dallas. Paz died shortly afterward in a U.S. hospital where the car's driver had taken him.
The shooting, which came at a time of crisis in U.S.-Panamanian relations, was described by State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler as part of "a climate of aggression . . . that puts American lives at risk."
The next day, Dec. 17, Bush--after consultation with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Secretary of State James A. Baker III, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and the military chiefs of staff--decided to invade Panama, an act that took place Dec. 20.
The President justified the invasion, which ultimately drove out Noriega and destroyed the Panama Defense Forces, as a last resort needed to protect American lives. He said the death of the lieutenant was the trigger to his decision.
According to three sources who confirmed the report independently of one another, the four U.S. officers were not lost on the day of the incident.
"They knew the area very well and had been to the Comandancia many times," one source said, referring to the Panama Defense Forces headquarters.
According to another source, the men were also armed and had frequently "dared" roadblocks by driving up to them and then refusing to stop or suddenly pulling away.
"What they did this time," a source said, "was pull up to the Comandancia roadblock, knowing it was one of the most important and the guards (were) very nervous.
"When the PDF came up to them and ordered them out of the car, (the Americans) all gave them the finger," shouted an obscenity and drove off. The Panamanians then opened fire, the source said.
Another source said that although Lt. Paz was badly wounded and one of his companions was also hurt, the Americans "dumped their weapons, probably in the canal," before going to Gorgas Hospital near Southern Command headquarters at Quarry Heights.
The sources said a report of the incident was filed with the Southern Command, which passed it on to Washington. However, they could not confirm that the report--with what they called the "true details"--ever reached Bush.
The government of Panamanian President Guillermo Endara, which was installed by the United States after the invasion and which had no role in the incident, has made no comment on the report.
In the interview, Cisneros said that officials in Panama conducted an investigation of the incident shortly after it happened.
He said interviews established that the Marines were unarmed and lost in the vicinity of the Comandancia and were not deliberately seeking to provoke an armed confrontation with the Panamanians. He said several of the Panama Defense Forces guards at the checkpoint were intoxicated.
"This was the conclusion I reached: This was another case in which PDF discipline broke down," Cisneros said. "They tried to pull (one of the Marines) out of the car. The Marines got scared and hot-rodded out of there. It looked to them like these guys (the PDF) were going to do something.
"They elected to drive away, which in retrospect probably was not smart, and the PDF opened fire," the general said.
Cisneros said he never heard of a group calling itself "the Hard Chargers" or any other such self-styled vigilante group.
"I was very strong about 'cowboying' and not doing those things," he said. "I convinced myself there was probably going to be an incident (that might lead to war between the PDF and the United States). There was a complete breakdown of Panamanian discipline after 3 Oct., and I wanted to make sure we were on the moral and legal high ground."
Times staff writer John M. Broder, in Washington, contributed to this report.