177. Telegram From the Embassy in Panama to the Department of State1

03623. Tosec 7157. For Asst. Secretary Todman & Ambassador Popper From Jorden. Please Pass to NSC for Brzezinski. Subject: Deputy Defense Secretary’s Memo on Ambassadorial Powers.

1. A memorandum from Deputy Defense Secretary Duncan to Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Brzezinski dated May 9 has come to my attention.2 The main thrust of it is that a decision to exempt the Panama Canal Commission from the Ambassador’s authority has been made by the Departments of State and Defense and that certain government officials, including personnel of this Embassy, [Page 437] are attempting to reverse that decision. I have some problems with that memorandum.

2. In the first place, I am the Ambassador of the United States—not the Ambassador of the State Department—in Panama. And as the President’s representative in this country, it is my responsibility to advise him on matters concerning our policies relating to it. Similarly, the NSC and OMB have a responsibility to render independent judgements. I understand that an agreement was reached between the Departments of State and Defense on this policy matter. In my judgment, it is a bad agreement. I presume the President will make a final decision on a policy exception of this magnitude, and I hope my views will be available to him before he does so.

3. Second, this Embassy has not been trying to “circumvent the agreement,” but rather to make certain that the President is aware of the viewpoint of his Ambassador in this country before his final decision on a precedent-breaking foreign policy question. The last paragraph of the memorandum suggests that unidentified “staff personnel” of the Embassy have been a source in this effort of “circumvention.” I am responsible for making our views on this subject known; it has been done at my specific instructions.

4. I have, on several occasions, expressed my views on this matter to the Department of State, my normal and proper channel for such communications. I see no need to repeat those views at length here, but I would like to comment briefly on several matters raised by Secretary Duncan’s memorandum.

5. His argument that the entire canal operation should be in an operational-military-type chain of command is unpersuasive to me. Canal operation, and the Canal Commission, are civilian, not military, activities. All other civil agencies, including extremely sensitive ones [less than 1 line not declassified] operate under the Ambassador’s statutory authority in every country in the world. There are no exceptions.3 The same is increasingly true even of overseas Defense Department military operations not parts of an operational force under area command, e.g., MAAG’s, MilGroups and security assistance activities. This system has worked quite well. Recent Presidential and congressional actions have moved in the direction of strengthening, not diluting, it.4 The principle of agency authority over overseas operations has nevertheless not been compromised; no one else seems to be complaining. American operations overseas have generally been responsive to our overall national foreign policy interests as they relate to each country. I have explained [Page 438] several times—most recently in Panama 33275— why Panama should not be the first exception.

6. A second premise of the memorandum is that leaving the law as it now stands would imply “that the executive branch was willing to subordinate US interests in the operation and defense of the canal to the vagaries of U.S.-Panamanian political relations.” I fail to see how any such inference can be drawn. Whether we like it or not, the very real fact is that as of October 1, 1979, the Panama Canal will be operating in a foreign country. It can no more be operated unilaterally, without regard to the host country,6 than can any other U.S. Government overseas operation anywhere. The thought that anything else will be the case7— and such a thought appears to underlie both the memorandum and the change in policy and law which it advocates—will itself be one of our major problems in protecting our interest in the canal operation.8

7. Let us be clear about one thing. We are begin underline not end underline talking about the Embassy operating the canal or “interfering with its operation.” No one wants that. What we begin underline are end underline talking about is assuring that the operations of an agency of the U.S. Government in a foreign country conform to the overall policy of the U.S. and are supportive of its interests.9 We are also talking about assuring that the problems that inevitably will arise will be settled quietly and effectively on the scene by those who know most about them, i.e., here in Panama.

8. The worst thing about trying to curtail the Ambassador’s authority over the commission is that it simply will not work. Panama has the power to raise questions with the Ambassador, and is extremely likely to do so. The initiative on what questions those are will belong to Panama, no matter what U.S. laws we try to pass about it.10 Simply shipping all these problems off to Washington solves nothing, because the expertise on most of the nuts-and-bolts questions we will have to deal with—on both Panamanian and American sides—is here in Pan [Page 439] ama, not there. In the end, if we try to perpetrate such a shell-game, we will find that it will not succeed in the new situation. And the canal operation that is our national interest to protect will be the only real loser from it.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Box 38, Brzezinski Office File Country Chron., Panama, 1–5/78. Confidential; Exdis. All brackets except those that indicate omitted text are in the original.
  2. See Document 173.
  3. An unknown hand underlined this sentence.
  4. An unknown hand underlined this sentence.
  5. In telegram 3327 from Panama City, May 12, Jorden discussed the Embassy’s role in treaty implementation and requested additional personnel for that purpose. (National Archives, RG 59, National Archives, D780203–0058)
  6. An unknown hand underlined “as of October 1, 1979, the Panama Canal will be operating in a foreign country. It can no more be operated unilaterally, without regard to the host country.”
  7. An unknown hand underlined: “The thought that anything else will be the case—“
  8. An unknown hand underlined: “be one of our major problems in protecting our interest in the canal operation.”
  9. An unknown hand underlined: “the operations of an agency of the U.S. government in a foreign country conform to the overall policy of the U.S. and are supportive of its interests.”
  10. An unknown hand highlighted these three sentences in the left margin.