How the Panama Canal
is and has been defended
a book review by Eric Jackson
(from The Panama News)
(Feb 22-March 6, 2004)
Guarding the Crossroads:
Security and defense of the Panama Canal
by Charles Morris Brooks
P&P Group, Inc., Panama 2003
282 pages in hardcover
CharIie Morris is a world-class
industrial security expert, a retired US Army Reserves colonel whose job
for nearly 20 years was to oversee the protection of Panama’s principal
industrial asset, the canal. His book, "Guarding the
Crossroads," is an update of a earlier spiral-bound work, itself an
expansion of an article in a security industry magazine, which was used to
brief people who needed to know such things in the course of the Panama
Canal’s transition from US to Panamanian ownership.
There is a lot to update since Morris retired from the canal. Osama bin
Laden and friends have launched a worldwide jihad against Western
Civilization, that part of Non-Western Civilization that’s not Muslim,
as well as the great majority of the world’s Muslims, who reject bin
Laden’s bigoted fanaticism. The next attack might come anywhere, but in
al-Qaeda’s shallow understanding of the United States, the American
people and US culture, certain symbols of American grandeur stand out as
tempting targets and one of these must surely be the renowned engineering
triumph known as the Panama Canal.
Now you won’t want to reach Morris’s book to understand why such a
contemporary enemy might do such a thing. The book also won’t explain
why the Cold War took place, or why Adolf Hitler was such a mean guy. But
it will tell you the basic constants and the changing factors behind how
the canal was defended during and after World War I, during the Second
World War, in the Cold War era and now in light of present threats. The
author is a security planner, not a political scientist. His book is
primarily a work of military history, an analysis of how a massive but
stationary potential target that has changed relatively little from the
defender’s point of view over its 90-year history has been guarded
against a variety of enemies with constantly changing capabilities.
Along the way, Morris explodes a number of myths and pares down several
exaggerated generalizations to their essential truths.
For example, is it true that the Panama Canal can’t be defended? Well,
yes, if the assault is by way of a hydrogen bomb delivered to one of the
key canal installations --- the locks or the Gatun Dam, for examples ---
by way of an intercontinental ballistic missile. However, the widely held
belief that an intrepid commando with a satchel full of plastic explosives
can easily and permanently put the canal out of action is debunked. So is
the notion that someone with a truck full of high explosives can wreck the
canal by taking out one of the saddle dams.
In the first scenario, there would be the great difficulty of placing a
charge where it could put an important part of the massive industrial
plant that is the Panama Canal out of action, and then assuming that, say,
the control room at one of the sets of locks was blown to pieces, that the
redundant backup system can be taken out at the same time. (And no, Osama,
he doesn’t tell you where they’ve hidden the spare controls.)
As to a saddle dam attack, Morris points out the sheer size of these
massive earthen structures. Had Timothy McVeigh set off his massive truck
bomb on the most accessible of these, the crater on the road to Escobal
and Cuipo would have cut off car traffic to and from those places but
canal traffic would have continued unaffected.
So what do canal security experts worry about the most? The same things
they always have --- a "Trojan Horse" ship blowing up in the
locks, or an earthquake or flood more massive than any in Panama’s
recorded history. But then, there are also contingency plans for these
sorts of things.
"Guarding the Crossroads" is illustrated with historical photos
from the canal’s archives and full of little-known tales like the
aborted Japanese attack at the end of World War II. It makes a captivating
read for any dedicated military history buff.
It also ought to be required reading for any public-minded Panamanian
citizen who wants to be well-informed about the nation’s key asset.
(This, of course, recommends the book’s publication in Spanish
So are sneaky Red Chinese saboteurs poring over "Guarding the
Crossroads" in their well-concealed lairs at the ports of Balboa and
Cristobal this very moment? Probably not, but if such people exist they’d
be shirking their duty if they didn’t Charlie Morris’s book as part of
are probably here to stay
by Eric Jackson
(from The Panama News,
February 8-21, 2004)
On January 21 Charles Morris Brooks, a retired US Army colonel and the
former head of the old PCC’s Canal Protection Division, made a
presentation at Excedra. The occasion was the publication of Morris’s
book, "Guarding the Crossroads: security and defense of the Panama
Canal," and it brought out his successor and many of his former
colleagues along with the expected mix of family, friends and history
The core of Charlie Morris’s presentation was a slide show about the
history of canal defense, but in remarks beforehand, toward the end of the
main presentation and in the discussion afterwards the latest problems in
canal security took center stage.
"This is something new for Panamanians, when an enemy doesn’t care
if he dies," Morris remarked about contemporary terrorism. Indeed, we
have only had one suicide bombing, the one that brought down a
Colon-Panama commuter plane in 1994. But anyone who follows the news knows
what’s going on out there, and it doesn’t take too many glances at the
hole in the USS Cole for someone to figure out various vulnerabilities
that the Panama Canal might present.
But very quietly, the canal administration has been trying to get a handle
on such things. For example, the boat launch on the west wing of the Gatun
Dam, the old Ski Docks, has been closed. So has part of the national park
system along the canal, in parts of which a committed fanatic might lay in
wait with a rocket launcher waiting for a shot at the right ship. There is
a new tone of urgency in the canal administration’s drive to run the
Pedro Miguel Boat Club out of their present premises.
The canal’s defense strategists have periodically had to think about new
potential enemies, but the lists of things that are critical --- the
locks, the dams and the generators --- and those systems that can go out
without shutting the canal, tend to be more constant. The new threats
would be against the same canal, with the same key components that circa
World War I might have been vulnerable to an amphibious landing backed by
battleship bombardment, or in World War II might have faced an aerial
The threat of international terrorism has been brewing for a long time,
Morris opined, citing the Palestinian attack on Israeli athletes at the
1972 Munich Olympics and the exploits of "Carlos the Jackal"
Illych Ramírez as examples.
"The real Achilles heel," now as when during World War II they
had soldiers on every bridge and in every engine room of every transiting
ship, is according to Charlie Morris "the Trojan Horse Ship."
The rise of containerized shipping and governments’ inability to inspect
anything but a small fraction of the containers enhances the threat now.
And what if someone sent a weapon of mass destruction concealed in
container, with a GPS detonator to set it off in the target city?
"How do you protect against that?" Morris asked.
The challenge can be met, he thinks, but "it’s difficult, it’s
costly and it’s inconvenient." "Now, there are no holds barred
--- they’re against everyone who is a non-Muslim." Whereas the
canal’s neutrality and usefulness has avoided the conventional threats,
that equation may not apply now. "The canal is useful to
everyone," according to the conventional wisdom Morris noted,
"but what if they don’t care who they hunt?" So canal security
people are getting crew lists and checking them off against lists
maintained by US intelligence services.
There are also International Maritime Organization's new International
Ship and Port Security standards, and American regulations about which
ships may enter US waters with which cargoes are being tightened. Like the
rest of the world maritime industry, the canal is adapting to the changes
and bringing new technologies to bear.
Neither Morris nor his successor expect that the restrictions on boating
and fishing in Gatun Lake or the blocked access to some of the parks along
the canal will be eased anytime soon. "What can you do?" Morris
asked. "There’s a threat out there."
MORRIS -- SHORT BIOGRAPHY
Charles Morris, a former
Panama Canal Commission executive and retired U.S. Army colonel, had
been directly and intimately involved with the security and defense of the
Panama Canal throughout both his civilian and military career. As
chief of the Canal Protection Division of the Panama Canal Commission from
1978 to 1992, he was director of security for the Canal during the
critical Panama Canal Treaty Implementation and Panama political crisis
periods. In 1989, he was also special assistant for military liaison
to the Panama Canal Commission's Administrator. From 1992 as deputy
director of the Panama Canal Commission's General Services Bureau, he had
oversight over Canal Security and was also the Commission representative
to the Police Subcommittee. From 1997 until his retirement upon
termination of the Panama Canal Treaty in 1999 (with transfer of the Canal
to the Government of Panama), he served as director of the Canal's Safety,
Environment ad Security Department, developing comprehensive safety,
environmental and security management strategies and policies in the final
years before the Canal's transfer to Panama.
With the U.S. Army Reserve
he had a mobilization assignment from 1980 to the U.S. Southern Command at
Quarry Heights, Panama, until his retirement from the Army Reserves in
1994. As a senior Reservist, he participated in many regional and
Canal defense plans and exercises, including a key staff position during
Operations Just Cause and Promote Liberty.
Morris is a consultant on
security issues and lectures frequently on Panama Canal security and
defense matters before a variety of forums.
(From prefatory comments by
D.P. McAuliffe, Administrator of the Panama Canal Commission 1979-1989, in
Morris' document Panama Canal Security and Defense 1903-2000,
printed in 1994 and his 2003 book, Guarding the Crossroads:
Security and Defense of the Panama Canal.
developed, owned and maintained by
H. Ormsbee, Jr. 2005