527. Information Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs (Hurwitch) to Secretary of State Rogers1 2

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  • Alleged Participation of U.S. Army in Plot to Oust Panama Strong-Man Torrijos

During the night of December 14–15, a coup occurred in Panama which lasted less than 48 hours. Personnel of the US Army in Panama may have been involved in this plot to oust General Torrijos. These events have also brought to light a situation which our Ambassador has described as a “very serious failure in our intelligence system.” Department officers responsible for Panamanian affairs did not learn of any unusual events in Panama until the early morning of December 15, after the coup had taken place.

Alleged Army Complicity

On December 26, at a luncheon given by the new President of Panama, Denietrio Lakas, General Torrijos informed our Ambassador, in the presence of three other senior members of the National Guard General staff, that he was convinced that members of the 470th Military Intelligence Unit of SOUTHCOM had played an active role in conspiring with Colonels Silvera and Sanjur to oust Torrijos in the abortive December 14–15 coup.

Torrijos specifically alleged that:

Colonels Sanjur and Silvera, in the presence of some 30 officers of the National Guard, said they had the support of General Westmoreland and the US Army. (One of the officers lunching with our Ambassador had been present at this meeting.)
Efrain Anguiera, a civilian employee of the US Army serving as official liaison officer between the 470th and the National Guard, told Col. Arauz (then G–2 of the National Guard, and now Panama’s representative on the Inter-American Defense Board) in the Canal Zone residence of Anguiera on the afternoon of December 15, to which Anguiera had called Arauz, that the ouster of Torrijos was a settled matter, and that US Army G–2 supported it.
Col. Sanjur called Maj. Noriega, Commander of the Fifth Military Zone with headquarters at David, and told him that G–2 of the US Army was going to call him by telephone to ask him to surrender. Anguiera then called Noriega and asked him to support the ouster of Torrijos which had the approval of the US Army. These calls were made on the afternoon of December 15 while the coup was in progress.
US Army intelligence agent Anguiera notified Colonels Sanjur and Silvera of stops of the airplane that General Torrijos used in his return to Panama on December 15 through telephone calls to Cal. Arauz. Anguiera provided information on the type of plane, and places and exact times of arrival and departure at Mexico City, Tapachula and San Salvador.
Sanjur stated the CIA had proof that Torrijos was a communist and that the CIA supported Torrijos’ removal. (COMMENT: We have no reason to believe the CIA was involved in the coup of mid-December.)

Torrijos also told our Ambassador that the National Guard has a general problem of US Army intelligence officers attempting to suborn officers and enlisted men of the Guard with electrical appliances from the Army Post Exchange, liquor, money, etc. He stated that the agreement with US Army G–2 was that it could have liaison officers in each detachment who would deal only with the detachment commander, but that Army G–2 activities have gone far beyond this agreement.

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The foregoing statements of Torrijos at this time remain allegations. General Mather (CINCSOUTH) is presently conducting an investigation of the activities of Anguiera and of the entire 470th Military Intelligence Unit during the period of the coup. Two Defense representatives from Washington, who will report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are in Panama to assist in this investigation. They have not yet presented themselves at our Embassy to obtain the Ambassador’s views.

Ambassador Sayre has informed General Torrijos that he has discussed the alleged activities of the 470th with General Mather and that an investigation has been initiated.

The Department has advised the Ambassador and other agencies concerned that we will soon wish to reply to Torrijos about these allegations, and that the reply should be frank and forthcoming.

Our message to Sayre added that for this and other reasons (i.e., the more serious questions these allegations give rise to if they are substantiated) we assume the investigation the Army is undertaking will be conducted with all possible speed.

Breakdown in Intelligence

On December 9 intelligence information came into the hands of the US Army in Panama, the 470th Military Intelligence Unit, that the Chief of Staff of the National Guard was considering a plan to assassinate the Commandant of the National Guard, General Torrijos. This critical intelligence, affecting the life of what amounts to the Chief of State, was withheld by the Us Army from the Embassy and therefore the Secretary of State and President, for 72 hours, Ambassador Sayre reports that the Army Commander on General Mather’s staff apparently made a decision on his own that protection of his sources and agents was paramount to all other considerations.

Ambassador Sayre has reported to us that the Deputy Commander of the Milgroup in Panama was, according to his own account, denied on December 14 a copy of a US Army intelligence report [Page 4] dealing with the plot, and was enjoined by the Commander of the 470th from passing on the information he received to the Milgroup Commander and the Ambassador. He was asked to remain in the office of the Commanding Officer of the 470th to ensure that this information would not be disclosed to his superiors. This officer refused to abide by these rules and reported immediately to the Milgroup Commander, who passed the information to the Ambassador.

Next Steps

There are at least three requirements that emerge:

The role and functions of the 470th Military Intelligence Unit must be reassessed in light of these developments with a view to eliminating unnecessary or improper activities.
Prompt corrective action must be taken with respect to the breakdown in our intelligence system which caused an inexcusable delay of 72 hours in the transmittal of critical intelligence information to the Ambassador and Secretary of State.
The allegations made by General Torrijos concerning the Army’s role, if any, in the coup of mid-December must be examined for their veracity.

We intend first to await the findings of General Mather’s investigation. We will then be in a position to take whatever further action is required. We will keep you fully informed of developments.

Under Secretary Johnson is fully informed, concurs in this approach, and at the appropriate time intends to discuss the matter with the Department of Defense.

Mr. George C. Denney, Jr., Acting Director of INR, has also read this memorandum and concurs in the approach.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 23–9 PAN. Secret. Drafted by Grove. On January 26, Kissinger informed Laird and Helms that President Nixon wanted them to ensure that intelligence is passed to policymakers as quickly as possible, and he wanted a report on recommendations for improving intelligence collection in Panama. (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 332, Subject Files, Review of Intelligence Activity.) Laird and Helms recommended in a memorandum to the President, dated February 25, that non-essential duplication of intelligence activities should be eliminated and coordination of intelligence activity should be improved. (Central Intelligence Agency, Executive Registry, Job 80–B01086A, Box 15, Folder 2, P–17 Panama)
  2. Hurwitch informed Rogers that U.S. Army personnel may have been involved in a coup attempt in Panama on December 14–15. Hurwitch also stated that on December 9 the Army withheld intelligence information from the U.S. Embassy on coup plotting for 72 hours.