Inside The Invasion

At 12:56 a.m. last Dec. 20, five minutes before U.S. forces' biggest battle since Vietnam, Lt. Col. Lynn Moore sat tensely in an OH-58 scout helicopter, circling the cloudy skies above El Renacer prison and eying his target through night-vision goggles. Moore's mission: to rescue the 64 prisoners inside, including two Americans. The jail bristled with guards, but the colonel had told his men they could take it without a single loss. For the past nine days, 80 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division had been rehearsing the assault, sometimes right outside the prison walls.

At 1 a.m.--H-Hour for "Operation Just Cause," the American invasion of Panama--Moore gave the order to attack. A Cobra helicopter blasted the prison-guard quarters with its 20-mm cannon, while a landing craft rammed a boat dock outside the compound, disgorging a platoon of paratroopers. Skimming over high-tension wires, two UH-1 helicopters executed a head-snapping 180-degree turn and dived into the prison's basketball-court-size exercise yard. Weapons blazing, 20 paratroopers poured out into a hail of gunfire from the guards. A team from the lead chopper raced to the main cellblock and slapped a C-4 plastic explosive on the heavy metal door, blowing it open.

Bursting into the headquarters building, Sgt. Kevin Schleben noticed a trail of blood from a wounded soldier. He followed it outside into the grass, where two Panama Defense Forces (PDF) men lay in ambush. Schleben threw himself on the ground and shot both men with his M-16. By dawn, five PDF soldiers had been killed at the prison site, and 27 captured (some talked out from under their beds, where they fled when the Americans opened fire on the barracks with an AT-4 antitank weapon). Not one of the 64 prisoners was harmed. Only three of Moore's men were wounded, none fatally. Moore recalled that the battle was as fierce as any he experienced in Vietnam. "But in Vietnam, we didn't know what the outcome would be," he said. "In this one we knew from the start who was going to win."

Indeed they did. The United States had 22,500 well-armed and highly trained troops. It had an armada of tanks, armored personnel carriers, airborne gunships, helicopters, jet fighters and six F-117A Stealth attack aircraft. Of the Panama Defense Forces' 19,600 troops, only 6,000 could be called combat soldiers. Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega had no significant air force, no tanks and only a patrol-boat navy.

Now, six months following the invasion, with the fog of battle and its aftermath lifting, military experts are busy analyzing the operation to see what went right--and what went wrong. Gen. Carl Stiner, the 18th Airborne Corps chief, who planned the operation, has boasted that the invasion went so well that "there were no lessons learned." To be sure, Panama was a huge improvement over the blunder-filled 1983 invasion of Grenada, but it was hardly flawless. A NEWSWEEK investigation into what really happened in Operation Just Cause revealed foul-ups as well as success stories. Among them:

As many as 60 percent of the 347 American casualties may have been due to "friendly fire." Well-placed military sources told NEWSWEEK that nine of the 23 U.S. soldiers killed were accidentally slain by comrades. The apparent reason: the Americans did most of the shooting.

Intended to be a surprise attack, the invasion was compromised by 12 to 15 different security leaks, NEWSWEEK has learned. Noriega was warned by the PDF the night of the invasion that an attack might be imminent. Fortunately, he ignored the warnings. Still, the leaks did not travel far. Had the PDF been better prepared, casualties would have been much higher among the 4,500 U.S. paratroopers, who were vulnerable to fire as they dropped from the sky. "We were plain lucky," said Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Navy SEALs (SEa-Air-Land commandos) are privately livid over a disastrous raid at Punta Paitilla airfield on the outskirts of Panama City. Originally the SEALs were supposed to destroy Noriega's private airplane from afar. But the plans were changed. The U.S. Southern Command told the SEALs instead to disable the plane, whatever government replaced Noriega wouldn't have to buy a new one, and nearby diplomatic residences wouldn't come under fire from stray rounds. The cost was four dead SEALs--and a badly damaged aircraft anyway. "Somebody's head should roll," said a Navy officer.

The Bush administration has always insisted that the invasion was a last-minute response to provocation--the shooting and harassing of American citizens in Panama by Noriega's thugs. This is not true. In fact, NEWSWEEK has learned, the plans to invade were set in motion much earlier, and the sheer momentum of preparation--along with President Bush's desire to get Noriega--made the invasion inevitable. In the weeks before the invasion, officers posing as tourists visited the parts of Panama they would attack.

Originally code-named "Blue Spoon" by a random computer designation, the invasion was more grandly renamed Just Cause by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. Cheney's biggest contribution to the invasion, sources say, was to get out of the way. He made sure top Pentagon officials did not know of the planned invasion: nobody could second-guess the U.S. Southern Command chief, Gen. Maxwell Thurman. "Soldiers, not bureaucrats, planned this operation," says Lorenzo Crowell, a military historian at Mississippi State University, who is studying the invasion. Dropping 4,500 paratroopers on top of the enemy in the dead of night was an extraordinary feat of arms, the biggest airborne assault since World War II. For the most part, the operation went smoothly: only 40 paratroopers experienced broken bones and sprains, although they dropped from 500 feet onto the hard tarmac of Rio Hato airport.

One of Just Cause's best gambits was psychological. Instead of firing on PDF barracks, so-called Psy Op teams used tape recorded messages to cajole the soldiers inside to surrender. A particularly effective tape played the sound of a Sherman tank rumbling along firing a 50-caliber machine gun. Sensitive to Latin values, the tapes never used the word "surrender." Instead they called on the PDF to "cease hostilities." "Without the Psy Ops, the casualty rate would have been at least three times higher, and the PDF rate would have been five times higher," said a special-operations officer. In a mission that troopers quickly dubbed "Operation Ma Bell," special-forces officers called upcountry PDF garrison commanders on the telephone and told them to look out the window at the circling AC-130H Spectre gunships. If they didn't lay down their arms, the callers advised, the gunships would use their 105 mm howitzers, twin 20-mm Vulcan cannons (capable of 2,500rounds a minute)and 40-mm Bofors cannons (100 rounds a minute) to turn the garrisons into rubble. More than 1,000 Panamanian soldiers surrendered to Ma Bell during a two-day sweep.

The AC-130 gunship proved decisive more than once. General Thurman realized that if Noriega's elite Battalion 2000 could reach Tocumen airport, the parachuting Rangers landing there would be sitting ducks. To stop them, four six-man Green Beret A-teams were given the mission of holding a bridge astride the route. Outgunned by the 200 PDF soldiers in the approaching convoy, the Green Berets called in an AC-130. Destroying nine trucks in a torrent of fire, the gunship herded the rest of the battalion back to its barracks.

Thurman's plan called for 4,000 special operations troops--Green Berets, Rangers, SEALs, Delta Force and Air Force commandos--to perform raids all over Panama in the early hours of the invasion. The most daring was a hostage rescue by the most elite commando unit, Delta Force. Kurt Muse, an American arrested by Noriega for running a clandestine radio station, was lying in his jail cell at 12:45 a.m. on Dec. 20 when a burst of machine-gun fire woke him up. He had been forewarned by the PDF that if the Americans tried to rescue him, he would be executed. Within minutes, however, Muse heard an American voice outside. "Moose, you OK?" it asked. "Lie down," the voice continued. "We're blowing down the door." The door flew open and an American commando calmly told him, "We're going to the roof." Passing in front of a wall now riddled with machine-gun bullets, they raced to the roof and piled into a "bumblebee" helicopter. As PDF rifle fire jolted the craft, it plunged down to the street, and lurched and bumped along into a courtyard. The Delta commandos, some of them wounded, formed a perimeter and fought off the Panamanians until an armored personnel carrier rescued them. "There were no Rambos," recalled Muse. "These guys are just very, very calm, very quiet and very professional."

In the biggest failure of the operation, the U.S. commandos failed to catch Noriega, however. A special-forces team assigned to track Noriega lost him in Colon about four hours before the invasion when he sent out a false motorcade and slipped away to spend the night in a motel with a prostitute. Noriega actually learned of the invasion when he saw paratroopers landing at a nearby airfield. He jumped in a van and, evading a U.S. roadblock, vanished until he finally surrendered four days later to the Vatican Embassy.

There were a number of intelligence glitches in the operation. Some of the 82nd Airborne's equipment was dropped into a swamp because no one had surveyed the area. Curiously, the CIA was largely cut out of the operation, partly because the Army feared the spooks would leak to Noriega, the agency's old client. As it turned out, there were numerous leaks from other sources--from U.S. soldiers stationed in Panama to their local girlfriends, from Panamanian customs agents who warned the PDF of incoming cargo planes, even from a Panamanian telephone operator at Fort Clayton monitoring calls about the invasion. Before the invasion, General Thurman discovered that his own headquarters had been thoroughly bugged by Noriega. At 10 p.m. on the night of the invasion, the PDF told Noriega there were indications that the Americans would attack at 1 a.m. But Noriega, believing the preparations were harmless military maneuvers, merely replied, "Ah, that's all bullshit," and returned to his bottle and his mistress. During previous months, Thurman had shuttled troops in and out, moving convoys around the countryside; it was part of an elaborate plan to dull Noriega's wariness.

Just when the decision to invade was taken has been the subject of some dispute--and administration dissembling. After the invasion, President Bush stated that he had decided to act only after an American soldier was shot at a PDF checkpoint and a Navy officer and his wife were roughed up by some of Noriega's thugs. At the time, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams insisted to skeptical reporters, "We were not waiting for a provocation." But his predecessor, Fred Hoffman, who has seen the classified planning documents, told NEWSWEEK, "They had a plan and they were just waiting for an excuse to use it."

The invasion was probably a foregone conclusion after President Bush was roundly criticized for failing to bolster a botched coup attempt against Noriega last Oct. 3. A State Department official, Michael Kozak told Noriega's lawyers on Oct. 12 that if their client were to step down peacefully, "it has to be now." Frank Rubino, Noriega's chief counsel, told NEWSWEEK that he was struck by Kozak's extreme "sense of urgency." (The State Department denies Rubino's account of the meeting.) At Fort Bragg, meanwhile, General Stiner was drawing up plans for an aerial blitzkrieg. Earlier military plans had envisioned a slow escalation of force to drive Noriega from power and intimidate the PDF into surrendering. But having let Noriega slip away once, President Bush told his commanders that he wanted the strongman captured. General Thurman decided that decapitating the PDF leadership was not enough; the PDF itself must be destroyed. His invasion plan was approved by Bush in early November--a month before the so called provocations. Still, Thurman was not sure Bush would give the go-ahead. NEWSWEEK has learned that he turned up the pressure in mid-December by informing the White House that rehearsals had gone well, but that his men would lose their edge if they did not move fast.

Looting rampage Thurman is a pure warrior: unmarried, he is a 24-hour-a-day soldier who has little use for civilians or civilian life. His planning for the invasion was brilliant. But not his planning for the aftermath. Ignoring warnings from his aides, Thurman failed to anticipate the consequences of "taking down" the Panama Defense Forces, which included the local police. The result was a looting rampage that caused as much as $1 billion in damage. "That was a goddam disgrace," said one of Thurman's senior officers.

The civilian cost may never be known. Conservative estimates of deaths range from 220 to 300. The slum areas around Noriega's headquarters were virtually destroyed. The United States tried to avoid "collateral damage" by strict rules on the use of firepower. A unit could not fire an artillery round without the permission of a lieutenant colonel. Still, edgy soldiers make mistakes. Three days after the invasion, American soldiers shot a Panamanian man and his wife, who was in labor, as they sped to the hospital past a U.S. checkpoint. Death and destruction-to friend, foe and innocent bystander alike-is the inevitable product of armed invasions, even one as carefully planned and well executed as Operation Just Cause.