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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 translation.)

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 their homework.



Post-9/11 canal security restrictions
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 buffs.

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 attack.

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."



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.

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