THE traumatic history of covert operations has produced syndromes that operate to constrain the national security establishment when confronted with a situation like the attempted coup against Gen. Manuel Noriega. These are the fear of fiasco and the fear of being involved in an assassination. Both these phobias were alluded to by Gen. Brent Scowcroft, President Bush's national security adviser, in responding to criticism of the bungled operation in Panama.
Gen. Scowcroft harked back, without elaboration, to the Mayaguez as an example of what can happen because of inadequate information in ``the fog of war.'' Scowcroft was serving as national security adviser to President Ford in 1975 when the Mayaguez, an American merchant ship, was seized off the coast of Cambodia.
A rescue effort was mounted, employing US marines, to recover the crew from a Cambodian port. Despite intensive intelligence efforts, the raiders ran into unexpectedly strong resistance from the Khmer Rouge and, more embarrassing, reached their target location to find that the crew had already been removed.
President Nixon had undergone a similar embarrassment in 1970 when an exquisitely organized operation to rescue Americans from a North Vietnamese POW camp found the cells vacant. Not to mention the fiasco of President Carter's attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran in 1980, and the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 in the first months of the Kennedy administration.
These are part of the collective tortured memory of the military establishment, reflected in a reluctance to risk a new ``Mayaguez'' by committing American forces in a confused situation.
More traumatic still, in the national security establishment, is the assassination syndrome. George Bush had just become CIA director in February, 1976, when President Ford issued Executive Order No. 11905: ``No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.''
The order was issued in response to pressure by Congress after a highly publicized investigation by a Senate committee, headed by Frank Church of Idaho exposed the CIA's involvement in assassination plots against Fidel Castro, Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, and others.
Since then, those planning covert action have had to reckon with the fear that the ban would be violated if a target died as an unanticipated consequence.
The Ford executive order was renewed by succeeding presidents. (In its current version it reads, ``No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination.'')
It did not, however, deter the Reagan administration from arranging, though the proxy of Saudi Arabia, an attempt to kill Sheikh Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the Hezbollah in Lebanon. (The plot misfired, and the Sheikh was absent when a car bomb demolished his apartment house, killing 80 persons.) Nor did the order prevent Reagan from ordering a bombing raid on the headquarters of Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi in 1986.
But the assassination ban emerged as a problem again in planning for the ouster of Noriega (who, ironically, offered to arrange an assassination in Nicaragua in the days when he was an anti-Sandinista ally). The Senate Intelligence Committee interpreted the ban broadly to apply to the death of a target in an American-assisted conspiracy. That was what Gen. Scowcroft was alluding to when complaining that the administration was constrained by ``Congress and its micromanagement of the executive branch...''
There have been disputes with the Senate Intelligence Committee over plans to unseat Noriega. One such discussion occurred in July, 1988, over the CIA's plans to use Col. Eduardo Herrera, a former Panamanian military intelligence officer. He did not appear to be reliable. The issue came up again last July when the White House submitted a different Noriega coup plan.
Thus, when Maj. Moises Giroldi first sent word to CIA officers in Panama of his plan to organize a coup, the question of possible assassination immediately came up. The first reaction of CIA officials was to say, ``Don't kill him.'' Although Giroldi gave assurances that Noriega's life would be spared, American officials advised President Bush there could be no ironclad guarantee that Noriega would not be killed.
Thus, the national security establishment finds itself caught between its own fear of failure and fear of ``success'' beyond its intentions. And that makes it hard to respond to a confusing, fast-moving situation like a military coup.
The Bush administration is now seeking a less stringent interpretation of the assassination ban. A recent legal opinion drawn up in the Pentagon states that the employment of ``overt military force'' against foreign combat forces, guerrillas or terrorists ``would not constitute assassination.''
The Bush administration doesn't want to be blamed for a death occurring as the unintended consequence of a covert operation. The difficulty, however, is the legacy of a mistrust built up during the Reagan Iran-contra years.