173. Memorandum From the Deputy Secretary of Defense (Duncan) to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Authority of U.S. Ambassador to Panama

During our luncheon meeting on 24 March 1978 the Secretary of State and I discussed the authority of the U.S. Ambassador to Panama as it relates to the Panama Canal Commission (PCC).2 In the initial draft of the implementing legislation, State proposed that the Ambassador have complete authority over the PCC. Defense recommended that the PCC Administrator be placed in the same category as the area military commander (exempt from authority of the Ambassador) and that the Ambassador, the PCC Administrator and the area military commander be required to keep each other fully informed and to cooperate and coordinate on matters of mutual interest.

The Department of Defense recognizes that the U.S. Ambassador to Panama will be concerned with certain issues affecting the Canal. We believe the Ambassador’s need for early information and adequate opportunity to consider implications for the U.S.-Panamanian relationship can be met by effective coordination in Panama, by having the Ambassador present and participating as an advisor at PCC Board meetings and by continued participation of the Ambassador and his staff in the Panama Review Committee, an in-country vehicle for interchange of information and views between U.S. agencies. This will provide the Ambassador with a voice at PCC Board meetings and timely information so that he can weigh in at the local or Washington level through his chain of command. A Foreign Service Officer could also be assigned to the PCC staff, on a reimbursable basis, to provide political advice.

The Department of Defense does not believe that it is necessary, or wise, for the Ambassador to exercise authority over the PCC. Although the Ambassador normally would not want to interfere in Canal operations, the possibility that he might use this authority would create a dichotomy between policy and operations that would hinder the PCC management in carrying out its assigned mission.

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I believe strongly that the operation and defense of the Canal must be managed centrally under the aegis of one agency. We assume that as the result of an ongoing OMB study the President will assign oversight of the Panama Canal Commission to the Secretary of the Army acting through the Secretary of Defense. The Ambassador does not belong in what would then be a Department of Defense chain of command.3 Giving the Ambassador final authority within country would, I believe, also undermine our present position with the Congress, by implying that the Executive Branch was willing to subordinate U.S. interests in the operation and defense of the Canal to the vagaries of U.S.-Panamanian political relations.

For these reasons, the agreement reached at our meeting with Secretary of State Vance on 24 March provided for placing the PCC Administrator in the same category as the area military commander (i.e., reporting in my channel) is the best solution. Proposed language was agreed upon subsequently by the State and Defense Department staffs and included in the legislative package forwarded to Senator Brooke and other Senators on 28 March 1978.

Recent reports indicate that staff personnel of the NSC and Embassy Panama are now attempting to reverse the Ambassadorial powers decision.4 I object strongly to these attempts to circumvent the agreement reached previously, and request that you intercede with the Office of Management and Budget to ensure that the legislation forwarded to the Congress will be in accordance with my agreement with Secretary Vance.

CW Duncan Jr.
  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Box 41, Pastor, Country, Panama, 4/78. No classification marking.
  2. See footnote 4, Document 157.
  3. An unknown hand underlined the last two sentences.
  4. See Document 177.