274. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (McGiffert) to Secretary of Defense Brown1

The recent cables from Embassy Panama concerning Panamanian sensitivity to SOUTHCOM’s regional activities2 suggest to me that we should begin thinking seriously about moving the locus of those activities elsewhere, and SOUTHCOM along with it (or eliminate SOUTHCOM). This matter has been broached on and off for the last [Page 642] 13 years, so we won’t lack for alternative ideas. In any event, it seems to me that—regardless how the legal/political/functional analysis of SOUTHCOM’s activities advocated (rightly, I think) by Embassy Panama comes out and quite aside from the current flap over SOUTHCOM’s command of the joint naval exercise with Honduras (HALCON VISTA)3—it is a virtual certainty that conducting U.S. regional security activities from Panama will become more and more difficult in the years to come and that we would be wise to finesse the issue now to retain our operational flexibility. In the process, we might also be able to do something about the CINCLANT/SOUTHCOM interface which seems to me complicates any U.S. military response to contingencies in Central America.4

David E. McGiffert
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files, FRC: 330–82–0217–B, Panama 1980. Secret; Sensitive. Sent through USD/P. A stamped notation on the memorandum reads: “Sec Def Has Seen 31 Oct 1980.” Brown wrote on the memorandum: “I heartily agree, and have asked ISA to [illegible] on joint study of alternatives with Joint Staff.”
  2. In telegram 9297 from Panama City, October 30, Moss reported that Panamanian criticism of U.S. military assistance to El Salvador from Defense bases in Panama reflected the Panamanian Government’s belief that the 1977 Panama Canal treaties did not authorize such activities, as well as long held opposition to a U.S. defense presence in the area. The Embassy believed it was time to review U.S. military activities in Panama “in light of the new politico/legal environment surrounding our bases” created by the treaties. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800519–0378) In telegram 9298 from Panama City, October 30, the Embassy called Washington agencies’ attention to the new political and legal environment in Panama and recommended the U.S. Government determine what were the permissible activities of “U.S. forces operating from Panama, given the apparent limitations suggested by the treaty and foreseeable Panamanian sensitivities.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800519–0424)
  3. In an October 24 letter to McGiffert, Bowdler suggested that a Halcon Vista joint naval exercise with Honduras was not critical to U.S. objectives in Central America and risked damaging relations with Panama and SOUTHCOM’s “freedom of action in other areas of greater importance.” Bowdler pointed out that the treaties limited U.S. rights to use Department of Defense sites in Panama for the purpose of canal protection and defense only. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, North/South, Box 42, Pastor, Country, Panama, 3–12/80)
  4. Brown wrote at the end of the memorandum: “10/31 RWR/DEM—Should we include this as a topic in forthcoming PRC on Central/South America? I guess not; it makes more sense to look at it separately. HB.”