Unsung heroes of America's drug war

To catch General Noriega, they had to outmaneuver the Panama police force - and the CIA

It is not often that you hear of heroes being involved in America's war on drugs. But two examples really shine in David Harris's detailed account of the investigation and pursuit of Manual Antonio Noriega, the deposed leader of Panama.

In his book "Shooting the Moon: The True Story of an American Manhunt Unlike Any Other, Ever," Harris chronicles the travails of a maverick federal prosecutor, Dick Gregorie, and a tenacious rookie drug agent, Steve Grilli.

They overcame near-impossible odds to build a case against the general. Ironically, much of the opposition came from American officials, particularly in the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Harris documents all the reasons why powerful people in Washington might have wanted the Noriega case to just go away:

* Noriega was offering extensive cooperation with the DEA, prompting one senior DEA official to proclaim Noriega the best friend the agency had in South America.

* Noriega was a CIA and Pentagon ally involved in the most secret and potentially embarrassing US operations in Central America, including parts of the Iran-Contra scandal.

* Noriega enjoyed the protection of Panamanian law as commander of the Panama Defense Forces and de facto leader of the country. He had an army of 10,000 men at his disposal.

This is the picture in rough draft that Gregorie and Grilli faced as they considered making a case against Noriega.

Noriega was a master at playing both sides against the middle. He knew how to be useful to Washington. But he also knew how to be useful to drug traffickers by selling the protective services of his PDF soldiers for risk-free cocaine smuggling and money laundering.

Some in Washington were willing to look the other way. It was a critical time in Central America, and Noriega could get things done, quickly and quietly.

But Gregorie and Grilli didn't see it that way. To them, Noriega was a symbol of everything that was wrong with the much-touted war on drugs the US was allegedly waging. In Noriega they saw an important piece in a puzzle that might help bring down the entire Medellin drug cartel.

There were, of course, many others involved in the early stages of the Noriega case, and most of them are in Harris's book. But one annoying aspect of the book is the author's decision to frequently use generic identifications rather than simply naming names.

The careers of both Grilli and Gregorie suffered as a result of US v. Noriega, and as a reader and journalist, I wanted to know the names of those in the US government who worked against them. I wonder whose investigations they are blocking today. In this regard, Harris tells only part of the story. But he tells it very well.

One anecdote in the book recounts a trip by Gregorie in November 1987 to the CIA to review the agency's files on Noriega. He expected boxes of secret material, but instead received a few newspaper clippings. The CIA, it seems, was betting that Noriega would survive. It all changed a year and a half later. Less than 12 hours before American troops invaded Panama, a CIA messenger delivered 45 volumes of internal CIA documents to the US Attorney's Office in Miami. Within days, Noriega himself would stand before a Miami federal judge to face racketeering and drug-trafficking charges.

But ironically, Gregorie had become a casualty of his own relentless investigation and was no longer working as a federal prosecutor. It fell to someone else to put the general behind bars.

Warren Richey covers the Supreme Court and justice issues for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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