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At 0100 on Dec. 20, 1989, roughly 13,000 American troops under the operational command of the XVIII Airborne Corps airlifted into Panama to join the 13,000 Soldiers and Marines already stationed there. Their mission was to bring down Dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega. The US had backed Noriega over the years as a means of preventing the spread of Communism. By the late 1980s, however, US relations with Noriega had deteriorated after an American grand jury indicted the general for narcotics trafficking and other criminal activities. Growing tensions presented an unacceptable threat to American citizens living in Panama. When Noreiga's Panama Defense Forces (PDF) murdered an American Marine, it was the catalyst to US military intervention.

On Dec. 17, President George H.W. Bush ordered the execution of Operation JUST CAUSE. The objectives were several: to protect American citizens, ensure the safe operations of the Canal, support the establishment of democratic institutions, and apprehend Noriega. JUST CAUSE, a short-lived but complex operation, would be the first test of joint operational planning and execution called for by the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986.

Using the element of surprise and the cover of darkness, an overwhelming US military force neutralized the PDF within eight hours. One decisive advantage was that the Americans were familiar with Panama and had been training and rehearsing similar tactical exercises for several months beforehand. The US also had superior technology, such as night-vision devices, air supremacy, and sufficient airlift to attack multiple targets simultaneously.

Operations in Panama shifted from combat to peacekeeping just two days after the invasion, although US forces continued to face random violence and hostage situations in urban areas over the following weeks. Noriega had fled as soon as the invasion started, and it would take another two weeks to take him into custody.

From a tactical intelligence standpoint, conditions during Operation JUST CAUSE were described as "ideal." Prior to the invasion, the 470th MI Brigade was already in Panama and had been monitoring the PDF and Noriega's movements for years. Its personnel knew the strength and location of PDF units and had identified targets of military and political value. According to one S-2 who deployed with the XVIII Airborne Corps, the intelligence systems were already "intact and flowing [and] you [could] just plug into them to get what you wanted."

Human Intelligence (HUMINT) proved to be the most important and effective collection effort. At this time, MI units had a higher ratio of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) to HUMINT assets. As a result, SIGINT operators often found themselves conducting collection missions for which they were not specifically trained. For example, years later SGM Wilfredo Nieves, a Voice Interceptor with the 747th MI Battalion, 470th MI Brigade, remembered his platoon being tasked to process detainees. "The platoon did not have any experience in this type of operation since the entire platoon was SIGINT operators and not HUMINT operators." The platoon, however, quickly established a compound and, over two weeks, processed more than 500 detainees, "collect[ing], exploit[ing], and disseminat[ing] valuable intelligence which led to numerous kill/captures of enemy forces." Due to HUMINT personnel shortages, SIGINT linguists also found themselves conducting document exploitation and serving as interpreters where needed.

HUMINT personnel were kept busy collecting and disseminating intelligence on the locations of PDF personnel and weapons caches, as well as trying to identify Noriega's sanctuaries. The 470th chose its finest Panama expert to assist US Army South in these efforts. Staff Sergeant Tony Bonilla served as First Sergeant of C Company, 746th MI Battalion and had recently led the unit to its title as Director of Central Intelligence HUMINT Collector of the Year for Fiscal Year 1989. Bonilla understood the Latin-American culture and, after nearly 3 years in Panama, he was intimately familiar with the operations of the PDF. He had established an extensive HUMINT network to obtain real-time information on troop movements and internal PDF conflicts, morale, and will to fight. In addition, a failed October 1989 coup to oust Noriega had provided valuable intelligence on the PDF's capabilities.

Using his insight into the mindset and intentions of the PDF commanders, Bonilla and his team spent hours on the telephone persuading many of the commanders in outlaying military zones to surrender without a fight. His persuasive argument was that they should "serve their country by living to see its rebirth instead of dying needlessly." Their peaceful capitulation saved both American and Panamanian lives and prevented the unnecessary destruction of Panama's towns and villages.

Bonilla then focused all his available intelligence assets on tracking the whereabouts of Noriega. He again took to the phones to collect information from the Panamanian people. The resulting response threatened to overwhelm the intelligence staff. Although the amount and quality of the reports inhibited careful analysis, this network provided critical information instrumental in flushing out Noriega. Bonilla's network also produced information leading to the discovery of the largest weapons cache found during the entire operation.

In January 1990, Maj. Gen. Marc A. Cisneros, US Army South Commander, awarded Staff Sergeant Bonilla the Bronze Star for his efforts during Operation JUST CAUSE. CW2 Alfred Villasenor, HHC 470th MI Brigade, also received a Bronze Star. Villasenor, a task force liaison officer, briefed raiding parties, participated in 11 raids, and acted as the liaison for the task force during operations at the Papal Nunciature where Noriega was eventually located and apprehended. At the award ceremony, Gen. Cisneros highlighted the often unsung nature of intelligence operations when he stated, "In an engagement such as JUST CAUSE, the attention and publicity often goes to fighting elements. However, without soldiers like Bonilla…and Villasenor, the mission could not have succeeded."

While other intelligence sources contributed, HUMINT operations were the most effective in Operation JUST CAUSE, during both the combat and peacekeeping phases. HUMINT was successful due partly to the fact that the majority of personnel were already familiar with the area of operations--its culture, people, terrain, and political and physical infrastructure--and the local population was already familiar with US forces. Even given this "ideal" situation, mission requirements often stressed available intelligence capabilities. MI personnel, however, proved to be flexible and adaptable and materially contributed to the successful accomplishment of US objectives in Panama.