The Washington Times
January 11, 1999

Canal no longer crucial to U.S. national security

                                 By Tom Carter
                                 THE WASHINGTON TIMES

                                                                                  FORT CLAYTON, Panama
                                 It was military need that prompted the United States to begin
                                 building the Panama Canal in 1903. But that need no longer
                                 exists, according to the men and women responsible for
                                 defending the United States at home and abroad.
                                      The national security interest kept U.S. troops on the
                                 ground in Panama for almost 100 years. But less than a year
                                 before the canal is due to be handed over to Panama at noon
                                 on Dec. 31, American military officials have concluded that
                                 changes in the world --ranging from new technology to the end
                                 of the Cold War -- mean it is no longer needed to protect the
                                 American way of life.
                                      "There is nothing absolutely vital here in Panama in terms of
                                 regional or geographical importance," said Lt. Col. Byron
                                 Conover, spokesman for U.S. Army South. "It is disappointing
                                 that we lose the ability to launch certain kinds of missions out of
                                 here, but from a military perspective, there is nothing vital
                                      The single irreplaceable base in Panama is the Jungle
                                 Operations Training Battalion (JOTB) at Fort Sherman.
                                 Without exception, all the officers and enlisted men interviewed
                                 expressed regret at losing this base -- but none said it was vital.
                                      "When it comes to making the hard decisions of where to
                                 spend the money on a scale of must have and good to have,
                                 we don't have to have jungle training. It is not a must," said
                                 Col. Tom Heaney, JOTB commander.
                                      Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former head of the U.S. Southern
                                 Command when it was stationed in Panama and currently the
                                 U.S. drug czar, agreed.
                                      "Unequivocally I state that it is too bad that the United
                                 States did not forge a partnership with Panama that would have
                                 lasted another 50 years -- with a continued U.S. military
                                 presence," he said. But, "We don't have vital national security
                                 interests in Panama."
                                      In an hour-long conversation in Washington, Gen.
                                 McCaffrey listed dozens of reasons why it would have been
                                 better for Panama and the United States to keep a military
                                 presence here. Among the missions better based in Panama, he
                                 listed drug counteroperations, search and rescue work and
                                 humanitarian aid such as the current mission to hurricane
                                 victims in Nicaragua and Honduras.
                                      He also suggested that Panama is being undermined by
                                 money laundering.
                                      All these issues are important, he said, but not vital to the
                                 survival of the United States. He used words like "significant
                                 loss," "regret," "a shame" and "lost opportunity" to describe his
                                 feelings about the U.S. military drawdown in Panama.
                                      An enlisted soldier who asked not to be identified put it
                                 another way.
                                      "The canal has been useful over the years, but today it is not
                                 something Americans need to die for," he said.
                                      Throughout the past 100 years, Panama has been a vital
                                 link between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. The need
                                 became evident during the Spanish American War, when it
                                 took the warship USS Oregon eight weeks to sail around
                                 South America to reach Cuba. Newspapers ran daily accounts
                                 of the ship's progress alongside front-page stories on the war.
                                      When Rough Riding Teddy Roosevelt, who fought in Cuba,
                                 became president in 1901, he defined American control of the
                                 Pacific and Atlantic as paramount, and a canal was vital for that
                                      During World Wars I and II, the military interest in keeping
                                 the canal open was obvious, and Japanese and German
                                 submarine crews searched for ways to sabotage it. As recently
                                 as the war in Vietnam, naval vessels made important use of the
                                      Even after the canal reverts to Panama, U.S. military ships
                                 will be able to pass through ahead of other shipping.
                                      The "drawdown," as it it called in military circles, is well
                                 advanced. There are just 4,500 American men and women in
                                 uniform here today, down from 13,000 in 1989, and more are
                                 leaving all the time.
                                      "Most families will not leave until the summer, when the
                                 schools close," said Col. Dave Hunt, director of treaty
                                 implementation and the man responsible for closing up shop.
                                      Col. Hunt said that of an estimated $3.5 billion to $4 billion
                                 in assets the U.S. government is turning over to Panama, about
                                 $1.5 billion has been transferred --including 5,000 buildings
                                 and 29,000 acres of land.
                                      Besides moving the military, their families and belongings --
                                 including automobiles and some 3,000 pets -- Col. Hunt has to
                                 get some 7,000 pieces of military equipment out of Panama.
                                      "On 31 December 1999, anything left behind will become
                                 the property of Panama," he said.
                                      The departure means the United States will lose bases and
                                 assets that have been constantly used for drug interdiction,
                                 humanitarian aid and search-and-rescue operations.
                                      "You don't have to be a genius to figure out that Panama is
                                 closer for counterdrug operations [than the United States],"
                                 said Col. Conover.
                                      Howard Air Force Base, which conducts many of the
                                 3,000 interdiction flights that originate in Panama each year,
                                 will close May 1. Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen was
                                 in Colombia last month, in part to seek an agreement to
                                 transfer some of those flights to Colombian airfields.
                                      But drug interdiction has never been the military's primary
                                 mission. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, several
                                 military men said their job is to defend the country, not police
                                 drug trafficking. Much the same could be said about
                                 humanitarian assistance.
                                      "We will salute and do it. It is our job to follow orders, but
                                 if it is not directly related to military preparedness and combat
                                 readiness, we'd rather be doing something else," said one
                                      The military resources now based in Panama will be
                                 redeployed throughout the Caribbean region.
                                      U.S. Army South headquarters, now at Fort Clayton
                                 outside Panama City, will move to San Juan, Puerto Rico,
                                 along with small-boat training. "Air assets" are being moved to
                                 an air base at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. The 24th Air Lift
                                 Wing of Howard Air Base is being deactivated. The Southern
                                 Command (Southcom) headquarters moved to Miami in
                                 September 1997.
                                      A study is under way to determine whether the Joint
                                 Interagency Task Force South -- which specializes in drug
                                 interdiction -- should combine with a sister agency now based
                                 in Key West, Fla.
                                      Some capabilities will move to Soto Cano, in Honduras, an
                                 airfield that was used in support of Contra rebels in Nicaragua
                                 during the 1980s, but had been little used until the Hurricane
                                 Mitch disaster.
                                      Some 3,000 drug surveillance flights a year were flown out
                                 of Panama. Those will now be scaled back and conducted out
                                 of the United States or Colombia if that country agrees.
                                      "It will all be done without missing a day of work. There will
                                 be no letdown in operations efficiency," said Raul Duany,
                                 public affairs officer for SouthCom in Miami.
                                      Several conservative organizations in the United States
                                 raised the alarm, not to mention funds, after the Panamanian
                                 government sold two port facilities, one at each end of the
                                 canal, to the Hong Kong-based shipping giant Hutchinson Port
                                 Holdings (HPH).
                                      These groups are concerned because the chairman of the
                                 company, Li Ka-shing, has close ties to the communist
                                 leadership in Beijing. They worry that China, through this
                                 proxy, will control both ends of the canal.
                                      But the U.S. military dismisses the threat.
                                      "The United States is the dominant economic, political and
                                 military power in the region, period," said Gen. McCaffrey.
                                 "That is unaffected by whether some Chinese firm has access
                                 rights or not. I do not see this as a national security issue."
                                      Others see things differently.
                                      Retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the
                                 Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Foreign
                                 Relations Committee last summer that the Chinese presence
                                 constituted a serious threat.
                                      "All the ports in the Panama Canal are of strategic
                                 importance," said Adm. Moorer. "We are talking about the
                                 control of a strategic part of the world in our hemisphere,
                                 shortly to be controlled by the largest country on Earth,
                                 communist China."
                                      In the introduction to "Death Knell of the Panama Canal?"
                                 by G. Russell Evans, a book lamenting the loss of the canal,
                                 Adm. Moorer wrote: "I am astounded when I hear supposedly
                                 intelligent officers and officials state the canal no longer has any
                                 strategic value."
                                      However, a report prepared for Sen. Jesse Helms,
                                 chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,
                                 concluded that the threat from Hutchinson Port Holdings was
                                      Former Helms staffer Gina Marie Hatheway wrote in May
                                 1997 that she had conducted "extensive discussions" with U.S.
                                 and Panamanian government officials.
                                      "All those interviewed for this report state the HPH's
                                 development of the two ports does not translate into a direct
                                 national security threat to the Panama Canal," she wrote.
                                      Some critics still worry about the impact on the Pentagon's
                                 goal of being able to fight wars in two parts of the world at the
                                 same time. What if, for example, one war erupted in the
                                 Pacific, another in the Atlantic, and HPH blocked the canal by
                                 scuttling a ship in midchannel.
                                      "This is way above my pay grade," said one officer who
                                 asked not to be identified. "But we have a two-ocean navy,
                                 one on each side of the canal, and the canal is still neutral by
                                 treaty. If anyone threatens that, we could be back here in 24
                                      While virtually every U.S. officer in Panama said he will
                                 regret the loss of the jungle training facility at Fort Sherman,
                                 several said they were more concerned about leftist rebels in
                                 Colombia, drug trafficking and money laundering in Panama
                                 and a volatile political situation in Venezuela that could affect oil
                                      "I love Panama, and I have some concerns about the future
                                 of the country, but right now most of my focus is on moving
                                 out," said Col. Conover.
                                      "Contrary to what a lot of Panamanians think, we don't sit
                                 around each night trying to figure out how we can stay here.
                                 Next year, we will be drawn down and stood up in Puerto
                                 Rico, and Panama will just be another country among 32 in our
                                 area of responsibility in the Caribbean Basin."