America's Prisoner: The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega by Manuel Noriega and Peter Eisner Random House, $250 America's Prisoner should be one of those steamy apologias that are fun to read because their cast are full of characters you love to hate, but that are mightily frustrating because you are forced to relive the reasons you hate them. Here is former United States Colonel Oliver North, scurrying in and out of Panama, trying to persuade Manuel Noriega to join the Iran-Contra duplicities and then lying to his superiors by claiming he had won Noriega's consent. And here is George Bush, violating international treaties signed by former president Jimmy Carter and ratified by two-thirds of the US Congress, engaging in an invasion of desperate overkill just as his predecessor had done in Grenada. And, of course, here is Noriega, a man serving 40 years in a US prison for smuggling drugs into the country, a man so vilified by the US Government and press that it is difficult to hack through the thicket of propaganda and lies and imperatives of US colonial policy to see him clearly. It does not help to learn that, while he is serving a sentence for criminal activities, the Red Cross has declared him a prisoner of war and the US affords him the treatment mandated for PoWs in his common prison. Noriega's memories are not terribly persuasive. He sees the world, as one might expect and forgive, through the eyes of a victim of US imperialism. This is a world of sharply contrasting blacks and whites, and even the grey world he appears to have occupied seems to him clearly distinguished. On the one hand, Noriega despises US interference in the politics of Panama. On the other, he defends his long-standing association with the CIA, the agency that was most likely to bring him down. And while he sees himself as a second Fidel Castro, a nationalist condemned by the US for defending the rights of his nation, he served as intermediary between the US and Cuba on numerous occasions, not only carrying messages between the two antagonists, but also negotiating with Castro on behalf of the US. He even takes pride in such activities: 'The Cubans did not raise their weapons [on Grenada]. I am proud to say that my intervention with Fidel, without a doubt, saved the lives of American students that day.' Perhaps it would be most fair to say that Noriega played footsie with the CIA in an effort at national self-protection, but if he did so, he anticipated a return - an honour among thieves - that the rest of his suspicious character had no right to expect. Still, the book is almost certain to turn many minds towards Noriega's defence. The behaviour of the US was reprehensible, and we have more than Noriega's word for it. Peter Eisner, who covered Latin America for 15 years for Newsday, provides an analysis of Noriega's memoirs and interviewed many of the participants in the invasion and the subsequent drug trial. He learned many things that Noriega could not have known, and the comparison of the texts is damning. In Noriega's account, we find this description of George Bush: 'I am fascinated by the way history repeats itself. Bush, proving his cowardice by attacking helpless lifeboat survivors in World War II, took just as cowardly a move in the invasion of Panama. I can see the young face of George Bush, dive-bombing a Japanese fishing boat, frightened, but hoping that others will see it as proof of his manhood. 'And then I can see the older, mature George Bush, on national television, speaking of the evil of Panama, ordering Stealth bombers to destroy a non-existent enemy in Panama and manufacturing a mass version of his insecure vision of an evil empire challenging his manhood again. In English, they call it 'the wimp factor'. I am sure that this man's 'wimp factor' will never allow him rest: once a wimp, always a wimp.' Surely, this is Latin American machismo. But then, 200 pages later, we find Eisner interviewing General Fred Woerner, commander of the US Southern Command based in Panama, the general who was relieved of his duty in 1989 for refusing to invade the country. 'Overall, I never saw any credible evidence of drug trafficking involving General Noriega,' Woerner said. 'My analysis was that the US policy of isolating Panama and its military was counter-productive to US interests. The invasion was a response to US domestic considerations. It was the wimp factor.' The invasion of Panama, though it violated international treaties and resulted in enough carnage to draw the rebuke of American human rights organisations, might nevertheless be defended on the grounds of vital US interests, interests the Carter administration might not have foreseen in 1979. A weak argument, but one which the world of power politics would understand. The trial of Noriega, on the other hand, seems indefensible. Not that the jury was unfair. Eisner reports that the Drug Enforcement Agency was divided into two camps: those who knew 'we had no evidence, so we had to do our duty and convict him anyway', and those who leaked information that Noriega had, in fact, worked with the DEA to suppress drug traffic. Noriega says William Casey - CIA director under Ronald Reagan - would have testified on his behalf, but Casey died. William Kunstler wrote to Noriega in prison, offering to defend him for no charge. The letter was never delivered. Other lawyers withdrew from the case or turned out to have close links to the administration. Twenty-six witnesses against Noriega were convicted drug dealers serving prison terms who, in return for their perjured testimony, were released and allowed to keep their drug money. Some entered the witness protection programme and were given new identities: others, now the trial is over, have learned the government will not honour its promises, and have recanted their testimony. Agents of the CIA, Israel's Mossad secret service, the DEA and the Defence Intelligence Agency have all exculpated Noriega, but they were either not called or their governments decided not to take part in the case for political reasons. Time and again, when the defence tried to introduce evidence of the political machinations behind the case, the judge sustained prosecution objections on the grounds that national security was at stake. The conclusion that Noriega, Eisner and others draw is that there were three primary reasons for the invasion of Panama: Mr Bush's wimp factor, Panama's refusal to help with the Iran-Contra affair, and right-wing concerns in the US and Panama that the US would lose influence over the Panama canal after 1999. Noriega was supposed to be killed during the invasion, but when he survived, the deceitful trial became necessary. Politics one can understand without condoning. Powerful nations do terrible things to weaker ones. But perversion of justice to serve political ends is always maddening. Thus, in the end, Noriega's account is as infuriating as the US treatment of him is disgraceful.