Get Shorty

Saul Landau directs Digital Media Programs and International Outreach at Cal Poly Pomona's College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. His latest film is "Maquila: A Tale of Two Mexicos."

In August 1989, I sat at dinner with Gen. Manuel Noriega, commander of the Panama Defense Forces. Drinks in hand, a small crowd of supporters, scholars attending a conference and reporters awaited his arrival as nervous-eyed body guards, dressed in leisure suits with appropriate bulges for weapons, escorted him from an armor-plated Cherokee 4 x 4 and into the former residence of Omar Torrijos, Noriega's predecessor and the father-figure of modern Panamanian nationalism.

The crowd did not applaud, or even smile, as the diminutive intelligence officer entered the room. From the early-to the late-1980s, the general had undergone a metamorphosis in official Washington. The CIA, DEA and Pentagon had all accepted the legitimacy of this brutal and corrupt intelligence officer who had risen to become commander in chief in Panama. They ignored his halfhearted nationalistic rhetoric and treated him as a vital ally in the drug and Contra wars, even though they knew he was playing several sides at once. By the mid-1980s, however, Reagan Administration zealots tried to get exclusive rights to Noriega to gain leverage in the turmoil taking place in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Noriega disobeyed--behavior that the U.S. government has historically found unacceptable.

So, by the time of my 1989 encounter with him, the Noriega who had delivered to the DEA more cocaine, narco-traffickers and even labs than any of their other operatives had become transformed into the drug-dealing tyrant with dangerous--and perhaps even leftist--anti-democratic politics. The media that had labeled him "strongman" now hinted that Noriega's days were numbered--if the new president at the time, George Bush Sr., could overcome his "wimp factor" and do something.

The general, holding a drink and wearing a pressed white guayabera, spoke softly as we sat down at the dinnertable. The aggressive shift in U.S. attitude toward him, he claimed, stemmed from a 1985 meeting with Vice Admiral John Poindexter, Reagan's national security adviser. His pitted, high cheekbones seemed to strain against the skin when he smiled, giving his face an almost pained expression.

"Poindexter," he said, "came to see me on what he said was 'urgent' business." He wanted to "use Panamanian territory to train and launch the contras against Nicaragua. I explained that this would cause turbulence in the region and that if Panama assumed such a role in the area it would not help, but rather hurt, U.S. interests."

He paused to take a drink. "Poindexter became indignant and banged his pipe on the table," he said. "After that incident, the United States began its campaign to remove me." The conversation did indeed take place, albeit Noriega's version of it might well reflect his oversimplification of the bizarre turn in U.S. imperial policy toward Central America that led to the U.S. invasion of Panama in late 1989.

Aside from his words, I remember little else about his personality. Noriega wasn't charismatic: Nor did he posess compelling leadership qualities. There was no sense of an impending drama, as "Shooting the Moon" presents, in what turned into the world's bloodiest and costliest arrest. But, as David Harris tells this story, the fanatic anti-communism of the Reagan years gets virtually lost in a maze of details of how three middle-to mid-high-ranking bureaucrats in the Justice Department and DEA circumvented official policy in order to get the general. Bureaucratic zeal to catch narco-traffickers triumphs over ideology. As Harris shows, DEA cop Steve Grilli, his superior Kenny Kennedy and Dick Gregorie, a South Florida Assistant U.S. Attorney, were obsessed with bagging Noriega as a narco-trafficker linked to the Colombian cartel. Big deal that he was unofficially head of state. Neither Harris nor his lead characters examined the utility or morality of the drug war. Instead, good cops chase druggies while evading their unimaginative bosses, and get their man.

In Harris' intellectually truncated adventure story, the Poindexter meeting doesn't appear. Even if it did, the reader might not know since the author doesn't refer to many of the key policymakers by name. They appear, in this pseudo-melodrama, as cameo job characters in the unfolding escapades of his dramatic trio. By turning a U.S. invasion of Panama into an adventure story about three bureaucrats, Harris doesn't need to tell us the names of the US' "lead negotiator and the rest of the supporting delegation" that bargain with Noriega to step down. Equally anonymous are Reagan, Secretary of State George Shultz, Attorney General Edwin Meese and even Sen. Barry Goldwater. Similarly, Harris refers to "the jeweler," Noriega's key contact. Harris' no-name policy detracts from the value of his book as a reference or resource for scholars. Instead, this book aspires to be one of those hardboiled tales of danger in the tropics written by Elmore Leonard or Mark Bowden, though falling short of the mark.

Harris does offer insights into the "sharp-tongued" Elliott Abrams, whom he describes as having suffered "a streak of very dramatic prevarication." As Reagan's assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs and "the Reagan Administration's point man handling the issue of aid for the contras," Abrams lied to Congress. He told the Senate, after the Sandinistas had shot down a U.S. plane carrying supplies for the Contras and captured a crew member, that "there was no coordinating going on by Colonel [Oliver] North or anybody else under his direction in the U.S. government." Bush subsequently pardoned Abrams, who wrote in his autobiography "Undue Process" that "when [Congress] asked you, you had to tell, and not telling is a crime. And I'm saying, no it isn't." For Abrams, currently heading an institute on ethics, Cold War crisis axioms overrode facts, ethics and the Constitution.

But for the most part Harris ignores the absence of morality among the powerful, and he eschews analysis of the strategic policy battles in Washington over managing Central America and the Caribbean in the waning days of the Cold War. Instead, "Shooting the Moon" recasts the Panamanian drama in terms of the story of a few small-timers dreaming of a big score.

John Dinges' 1991 book "Our Man in Panama" offers a more complex perspective of Noriega's character and genuine insight into the reasons for the U.S. government's violent turnabout. Instead of deepening Dinges' analysis of late Cold War imperial politics, Harris, in his police procedure tale, tries to shine the spotlight on Grilli, who found narco-trafficking witnesses to testify to Noriega's role in drug shipping; on Kennedy, who allowed the investigation to continue despite official DEA reluctance; and on Gregorie, who attacked the case like a pit bull--determination without ethical context. By focusing on these characters, Harris microscopically examines the bureaucratic tree bark and almost entirely misses the policy forest.

Harris, who nobly served prison time during the Vietnam War for pacifist principles, now seems distanced from the violence of his story, although his distaste for Noriega's criminality becomes quickly apparent. But he doesn't examine the bureaucrats' dubious "lock up all the narco-traffickers" ethos, nor the morality of sending 20,000 American soldiers to bomb, shell and machine gun their way to regain control of Panama--at a cost of hundreds of dead and thousands of wounded Panamanians.

Instead, he dwells on U.S. Gen. Fred Woerner's despair when relieved of his command because he told the truth, and how the demands of DEA work had led Agent Grilli's marriage to deteriorate "to the point he was using what spare time he had to hunt for an apartment in which to set up separate housekeeping." But what of the despair felt by the Panamanians digging through the rubble after yet another invasion of U.S. troops which reminded them of how it feels to be subjects of a century of imperial rule?

And Harris magnifies trivia, providing tedious accounts of the daily bureaucratic highs and lows of his hero agents and prosecutors, but without giving much insight into their characters. DEA Agent Grilli, "impressed by the rank of his new Justice associates," tells Harris "'I was just a nothin' GS-12 [referring to his rank in the US bureaucracy]. A GS-12 usually has trouble gettin' even the most lowly dipshit assistant US attorney to return his phone call, much less remember his name. So here I am suddenly meeting with [expletive] Gregorie, who is the star of South Florida, you know what I mean?"'

In reporting ad nauseum such conversations, Harris diverts the reader from the history and lessons of the Noriega arrest story. We learn little of the Omar Torrijos legacy and the power of Panamanian nationalistic sentiment that began a century ago. Harris gives short shrift to the class struggle inside Panama between the ruling, rich, white rabiblancos --who hated Noriega--and the darker-skinned and poorer majority. For some of Panama's poor, even the flawed Noriega stood as a nationalist symbol. But bereft of the charisma or character to become a true national leader like Torrijos, his predecessor, Noriega remained an almost caricatured intelligence officer, a shadowy dealer of information and services, even as he became head of state.

"Shooting the Moon" fails as a thriller and as history. Yes, Noriega murdered his rivals and sucked money out of the Colombian cartel, while collecting fees as a CIA agent. But he also remained the quintessential intelligence officer in the pseudo nation of Panama. This classic middleman, appreciated by CIA Chief Casey and Fidel Castro, Israel and the PLO, the DEA and the cartel, because he delivered important information to all, understood his role. Explaining why he could not obey all the U.S. demands, he told me at that 1989 dinner: "I have to obey the dictates of the forces of nature that placed our land exactly in the middle of the Americas." A noble statement by a secret police thug who turned disobedient and whose arrest was hardly worth the immense cost--at any level of government and on any measuring scale. *

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