526. Memorandum From Viron P. Vaky of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1 2

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  • Panama/US Relations

Attached (Tab A) for your information are two cables from the Embassy in Panama City regarding allegations by General Torrijos of involvement by the US Army Intelligence Unit in the Canal Zone in the abortive attempt of December 15 to oust General Torrijos, Commandant of the National Guard (GN) and dominant political force within the Provisional Junta Government (PJG). Ambassador Sayre has discussed the allegations and has asked General Mather for a thorough investigation, which he has initiated.

On December 26 the newly-installed President of the PJG, Demetrio Lakas, at the request of General Torrijos, called U.S. Ambassador Sayre to a meeting at which Torrijos made the following points relating to the investigation which the GN is conducting on the attempt by Colonels Sanjur and Silvera to oust him:

—Colonels Sanjur and Silvera, in the presence of some thirty officials of the GN, claimed to have the support of General Westmoreland and the US Army for their move against Torrijos.

—On the afternoon of December 15, [text not declassified] called Colonel Arauz, a member of the GN intelligence, to his house in the Canal Zone to tell him that the ouster of Torrijos was a settled matter and that US Army G–2 supported it.

—That same afternoon Colonel Sanjur called the Commander of the 5th military zone (headquartered at David and loyal to Torrijos) to say that the US Army intelligence officer was going to call him to ask him to surrender. [text not declassified] then called that official and asked him to support the ouster, saying that it had the approval of the US Army.

—On December 15 [text not declassified] kept Sanjur and Siivera informed of the movements of General Torrijos as he made his return from Mexico to Panama.

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—[text not declassified] apparently had knowledge of what was happening on Saturday, December 13, because he was in David and, after receiving a call from US Army intelligence, he departed immediately for Panama City. This information was provided by the GN Commander in David.

—Sanjur stated that “CIA” had proof that Torrijos was a Communist and that CIA also supported Torrijos’ removal.

—Torrijos said that he continues to hear rumors that CIA plans to sabotage one of the planes in which he flies to the interior.

In response to the Ambassador’s question, Torrijos indicated that he did not think that [text not declassified] involved but he supplied no other names or details. Torrijos is confident that his information is correct and that the US Army was involved in efforts to oust him. He complained that [text not declassified] is still in the Canal Zone and calling persons in Panama. Torrijos considers [text not declassified] activities to go beyond the agreement that Army intelligence can have liaison officers in each detachment who deal only with the detachment commander.

Ambassador Sayre told Torrijos that the reports of CIA involvement were untrue and emphatically denied that there was any CIA involvement in plans to sabotage one of Torrijos planes. He also said that he would talk to General Mather about allegations of US Army intelligence involvement since that was outside his own area of responsibility. He indicated that he was aware that there was a person named [text not declassified] who reportedly worked for us Army intelligence but said that Torrijos and his staff should be aware that no one in Panama spoke for the USG except the US Ambassador. He indicated that he had wanted to make this point clear to Torrijos because he had been warned upon arrival in Panama that [text not declassified] was purporting to speak for the USG in Panama.

Ambassador Sayre comments that, while the conversation was cordial, it was obvious that Torrijos is skeptical of everyone now and especially the US intelligence agencies. His message was clearly that either the US must investigate and take action to remove immediately from the Canal Zone and Panama any persons involved or he will take his story to the press.

The State Department is sending a cable back to Ambassador Sayre telling him that they have discussed the matter with General Westmoreland, that both State and Defense share Sayre’s concern over the reported developments; that he should inform Torrijos of our concern and assure him that an investigation of the matter is being conducted with all possible speed.

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Comment: G–2 in the Canal Zone knew about the Sanjur plot before the Embassy did; a report of a talk between Sanjur and a member of the 470th US MIG was sent by personal memo from General Johnson (USARSO) to General Westmoreland and a limited distribution report to DIA, but not disseminated to the community as far as I can ascertain. Ambassador Sayre found out about this [text not declassified] This report cited Sanjur as planning to kill Torrijos. Such a report should have, in my opinion, been made immediately available to the Embassy and the Ambassador.

  1. Source: Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 790, Country Files, Latin America, Panama, Vol. 1, January 1969–February 28, 1970. Secret; Sensitive. Sent for information. Kissinger wrote on the top of the page, “Do memo for Pres conclusion: I shd [should] talk to [Melvin] Laird that this info comes to WH [White House] as matter-of-course. Al [Haig]—Check on army intelligence—this sounds very circumstantial.” In the margin next to the first sentence of the last paragraph, Kissinger wrote: “Why?” In the margin next to the last sentence, he wrote: “and [illegible].” Attached but not published was telegram 4158 from Panama City, December 27; and telegram 407 from Panama City, December 27. Kissinger summarized this memorandum in a December 30 memorandum to the President, but there is no indication the President saw it. (ibid.)
  2. Vaky reported to Kissinger that President Torrijos believed that members of the U.S. Army Intelligence Unit in the Canal Zone were involved in the December 15 attempt to oust him from power. The Department of State instructed the U.S. Ambassador to inform Torrijos that an investigation of the matter would be quickly initiated.