Going After Noriega

By Marilyn Harris


The True Story of an American Manhunt

Unlike Any Other, Ever

By David Harris

Little, Brown & Co. -- 394pp -- $26.95

In late December, 1989, six soldiers from Operation Just Cause--as the U.S. invasion of Panama was called--kicked open the door of General Manuel Noriega's office, hoping to arrest him. Instead, they found a good deal of cash, assorted pornographic materials and sex toys, a collection of porcelain frogs, and a framed picture of Adolf Hitler. There was also a Santeria altar, upon which animal entrails had been arrayed in hopes of bringing ill fortune to several people listed on an attached piece of paper. Near the top of the list were the American prosecutor and Drug Enforcement Agency investigator responsible for chasing Noriega down--evidence of the high quality of Noriega's counterintelligence.

Ultimately, of course, Noriega was cornered in the Panama City papal embassy and flown to Florida, where he remains in federal prison, convicted of violating the Racketeer Influenced & Corrupt Organizations statutes. He is the only world leader ever captured and then brought to trial in the U.S. for violations of American law committed on his home turf. A three-man team of U.S. law-enforcement stalwarts managed to accomplish this long shot against the wishes of their superiors and other highly placed officials in the U.S. government. Just how they did it forms the central drama of David Harris' highly readable book, Shooting the Moon: The True Story of an American Manhunt Unlike Any Other, Ever.

Harris, a 1960s antiwar activist who has made a career as an investigative reporter and author, uses evocative language that often reveals his liberal leanings, referring, for example, to a Reagan Administration official as a "first-rate creep." His sympathies and gonzo prose style--along with his failure to represent adequately the "Reaganaut" point of view--may diminish the legitimacy of his book as a historical document. But for the reader who can put up with occasional excesses, along with a large amount of detail, the story is riveting.

It's a tale ripe for the telling. As Harris reports, U.S. involvement in Central America during the 1980s featured a level of government corruption matched by few other recent affairs. Guns to arm the counterrevolutionaries against Nicaragua's Sandinista government were flown south on airplanes owned by CIA-run "cutout" companies, in contravention of federal law. Cocaine was the return cargo, bound for the States courtesy of the Colombian drug cartels. Profits were laundered in between, in Panama. (These events competed for headlines with a twin scandal involving gun sales to Iran, money from which also went to help the Nicaraguan contras.) These criminal activities weren't just taking place under the eye of the U.S. government: They were a government creation, and high-ranking officials were dedicated to protecting the efforts at any cost. The late CIA Director William J. Casey, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, and National Security Council staffer Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North together cooked up enough schemes to entertain conspiracy theorists for years.

The Contra intrigue and the case against Noriega were intertwined, sharing many of the same shady characters, mysterious airlines, and illicit banking arrangements. Indeed, Noriega's chief protectors in Washington were Casey and, initially, Abrams. Harris documents how, despite Noriega's many vices and a past littered with bodies, he had been considered a friend of the U.S. who, among other favors, helped facilitate secret support for the Contras and, interestingly, aided an early phase of the DEA's drug war.

The initiation of what would become the Noriega investigation dropped out of the blue--literally--one day in 1985, when a light plane containing a shipment of smuggled cocaine made a forced landing on a Florida highway, nearly hitting a DEA agent's car. The pilot and proprietor of the air brokerage that handled the plane ultimately became informants, revealing the identity of the plane's owner, a Panamanian named Floyd Carlton. Carlton, a Noriega henchman, was apprehended--and Dick Gregorie, first assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, persuaded Carlton to turn informant. The author portrays Gregorie as an intrepid crime fighter who had made the war on drugs his personal jihad. He assigned a hard-working DEA agent named Steve Grilli to debrief Carlton. It was largely from Carlton's testimony that the case against Noriega was formed.

Harris chooses to tell much of his story through Grilli, who lived the Noriega case for a couple of years. Grilli, Gregorie, and Kenny Kennedy, the agent whose car was almost hit by the drug plane and who was an integral member of the prosecution team, became victims of the intense internecine politics of the Noriega takedown. Because these three men persevered and were successful, against the wishes of their superiors, their careers were damaged--which clearly outrages the author.

Indeed, Noriega is far from the only villain in this book. Casey is depicted as a master manipulator. But the real bad guy, according to Harris, is Abrams, drawn as an arrogant, Machiavellian apparatchik, happy to do Casey's bidding when it came to using and protecting Noriega but an ardent Noriega-hunter when the political winds shifted.

The heroes of the story--Gregorie, Grilli, and Kennedy--maintained their integrity amid the moral swamp. Shooting the Moon captures the flavor of the time and place. Its story is so wild that it couldn't have been made up.

Harris investigated the Contras in Central America for 60 Minutes.

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