Operation Acid Gambit was a US Delta Force (1st SFOD-D or Task Force Green) operation that took place in the early stages of the US invasion of Panama, known as Operation Just Cause, in December 1989. The primary objective of Operation Acid Gambit was to rescue Kurt Muse, a US citizen and former US Army, who had been imprisoned in Panama for his involvement in activities aimed at overthrowing the government of Manuel Noriega. In 1991, the Washington Post reported that Muse was a CIA operative (source; source).
On 20 December 1989, Delta Force operators aboard four MH-6 Little Bird helicopters of the Night Stalkers (also known as 160th SOAR (A) or Task Force Brown) managed to get Muse out of the Panama City Model Prison.
Operation Acid Gambit was a notable component of the larger Operation Just Cause, which aimed to remove Manuel Noriega from power and restore democratic government in Panama. The invasion of Panama involved a combination of US military branches and was authorised by then-President George H.W. Bush.
In this article, we analyse the operation, the units involved, the aftermath, and its consequences.
2.1 Evolution of the Relation between Noriega and the US
The dynamics between the United States and General Manuel Noriega were intricate and characterised by evolving alliances. Initially, they had a positive relationship based on shared interests during the 1970s, when Noriega was head of Panamanian intelligence services. The relationship then was one of cooperation, especially during the Cold War, when the US saw Noriega as a valuable ally in intelligence sharing and anti-communist efforts.
Noriega’s rise to power in the early 1980s marked a turning point. The relationship deteriorated when allegations of drug trafficking and human rights abuses came to light, leading to increased tensions and sanctions imposed by the United States in the mid-1980s. President Ronald Reagan’s administration became increasingly concerned about Noriega’s actions, triggering accusations of his involvement in drug trafficking. The situation escalated further in 1988 when Noriega was indicted on drug trafficking charges.
2.2 Deterioration and Failed Coups
In March 1988, Noriega’s forces foiled a coup attempt against his regime. As relations deteriorated further, Noriega appeared to turn away from his Cold War allegiance to the United States, turning to the Soviet bloc and obtaining military aid from Cuba, Nicaragua and Libya. In response, US military planners began preparing contingency plans for a possible invasion of Panama.
In September 1988, the Panamanian authorities announced the arrest of 16 individuals suspected of plotting another coup attempt. Twelve conspirators were linked to the “National Patriotic Committee”, a US-backed guerrilla group that sought to oust Noriega from power.
Another failed coup in October, and Bush’s announcement, under mounting pressure, that he would refuse to negotiate with a drug trafficker, led to the General Assembly in Panama on 15 December to pass a resolution declaring a state of war between Panama and the US.
2.3 Muse and the Anti-Noriega Operations
At the same time, Kurt Muse and a small group of friends became active in the fight against the Noriega regime. Using broadcasting equipment from Miami, Muse and a team of four or five Panamanians initiated anti-Noriega broadcasts. They identified popular local radio stations, acquired frequencies, and enhanced transmission by building a stronger transmitter on the repeater tower line. Recognizing the need for advanced equipment, Muse made trips to Miami and ordered compact gear, possibly with assistance from the CIA. The new equipment was assembled in Panama City and put into operation.
After successful tests, Muse’s pirate radio team chose Noriega’s official state address as the ideal moment for their broadcast, reaching a vast audience during a significant government event similar to the State of the Union. Positioned at a nearby stadium, the team quickly set up in a condominium, transmitted a pre-recorded message during Noriega’s speech, and swiftly dismantled their equipment. The broadcast surpassed expectations, making front-page news the next day, portraying “imperialist Yankees” propaganda.
Despite the success, Noriega infuriated, initiated a hunt to apprehend the perpetrators, bringing in specialists from East Germany and Cuba. Although Muse continued broadcasting for two months, the attention drew the authorities closer. Unaware of an arrest notice at the airport, Muse was identified upon his return from Miami. His days as a pirate broadcaster ended when he was taken to the secret police headquarters in downtown Panama.
2.4 Detention of Muse and Initial Planning
Muse endured three days of interrogation, sleep deprivation, and witnessing the torture of other prisoners. He faced a pistol to the back of his head during one intense session. Moved to various locations to evade U.S. detection, the Panamanian government initially blocked U.S. officials from contacting him. In response, the U.S. cancelled visas from Panama, prompting Noriega to permit contact under the Panama Canal Treaty conditions.
Transferred to the notorious Carcel Modelo, Muse endured brutal conditions. He lived in an 8’ x 12’ cell with minimal furniture for nine months. Witnessing and hearing daily acts of torture took a toll on his mental and physical well-being. This resulted in a significant weight loss. President George Bush vowed to rescue Muse, leading to the decision to task the Delta Force for the mission. Plans were devised at Fort Bragg, and extensive rehearsals took place at a mock-up facility in Florida.
The mission faced challenges due to heightened security after a failed coup attempt, transforming the prison into a military facility. Noriega referred to Muse as a hostage, placing an armed guard outside Muse’s cell with orders to kill him in case of U.S. military action. The Delta Force conducted intensive live-fire rehearsals to enhance the mission’s precision and secrecy.
2.5 The Preamble to the Operation
The operation was strategically delayed until the U.S. invaded Panama in Operation Just Cause on December 20, 1989, to apprehend Noriega.
Before the raid, Muse had a meeting with a US official. The meeting took place in the public visiting area of the prison, surrounded by fellow prisoners and Panamanian guards. As Muse and an unnamed US colonel conversed, a US helicopter could be heard flying low overhead. At some point, the colonel stated emphatically that anyone who harmed Muse would not leave the prison alive, just as a rescue mission was about to be executed. The colonel eventually left the room in complete silence.
3.0 The Operation
3.1 The Plan
Operation Acid Gambit aimed to execute a straightforward plan with aviation support from MH-6 “Little Birds” of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Group. These agile, black-painted helicopters were equipped with benches to rapidly insert commandos. The mission would involve a rooftop landing at the prison, explosive entry, and descent to Muse’s cell on the second floor. The assault team would neutralise opposition, including the guard assigned to kill Muse and retreat to the roof for a helicopter escape.
A Delta sniper team would also be in place near the prison to neutralise any guards positioned outside the facility. In addition, aerial fire support would be provided by two AH-6 “Little Bird” and two AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command) AC-130H “Spectre” gunships. These were to attack designated targets (pre-planned Close Air Support or CAS) as well as remain available for any calls for assistance. Leading the operation were Lieutenant Colonel Eldon Bargewell and Major Gary L. Harrell.
3.2 Acid Gambit
At 0045 local time, two AH-6 helicopters initiated Operation Acid Gambit by strafing a two-story apartment to eliminate potential snipers. They then fired rockets into the nearby Comandancia, diverting the attention of the Panamanian Public Forces (PDF) defenders. The second AH-6 was shot down but the pilot escaped to safety.
Following this, two Spectre gunships engaged five buildings in the compound to draw PDF focus away from the prison and prepare the battlefield for Task Force Gator. The gunships, Air Papa 06 and Air Papa 07, coordinated with the rescue team on the ground through secure communication. The first gunship targeted an ammunition storage depot, causing significant destruction. Air Papa 07 continued close air support for ground forces. However, Air Papa 06 was retasked to escort mechanised forces to the U.S. Embassy. With the attack in progress, a sniper team eliminated guards and disabled the prison generator, plunging the interior into darkness.
3.3 The Rescue
Amidst the sounds of gunfire, Muse, awakened, took cover as chaos erupted in the prison. Delta Force operatives swiftly descended from four Little Birds (each with four commandos aboard), breached the prison, and secured Muse. After delivering their “cargo”, the four MH-6s flew north where they maintained a holding pattern and awaited the team’s call for extraction.
Unexpectedly, the Delta team faced enemy fire from the Comandancia’s third floor, prompting Spectre gunships to provide immediate assistance. Inside, Muse, guided by American voices, donned protective gear and evacuated. On the roof, more commandos emerged and they all took their positions on their helicopters and promptly lifted off. During take-off, Muse’s MH-6 nearly crashed into a power line, but he avoided it with a remarkable feat of piloting. Despite the effort, Muse´s MH-6 was damaged by gunfire and finally crashed, injuring four operators. Nonetheless, the team managed to create a defensive perimeter in the area and held the position for fifteen minutes. Eventually, the team successfully signalled for extraction, leading to an armoured personnel carrier rescue by the 5th Infantry Division. The operation took six minutes and marked the first successful American hostage rescue by a counterterrorist team. Furthermore, no one on Acid Gambit was killed.
4.0 Operation Just Cause
On the 20th of December 1989, at the same time Acid Gambit was executed, the U.S. launched Operation Just Cause. According to the US, this military intervention aimed at removing Noriega from power, protecting U.S. citizens, upholding the Panama Canal treaties, and restoring democratic governance. The invasion involved 27,684 U.S. troops and over 300 aircraft.
At 1246 local time, US troops began with an assault on strategic installations, such as the civilian Punta Paitilla Airport in Panama City and a PDF garrison and airfield at Rio Hato, where Noriega also maintained a residence. Navy SEALs also destroyed Noriega’s private jet and sunk a Panamanian gunboat. This was part of Operation Nifty Package, an operation launched by Navy SEALs to prevent Noriega’s escape.
The opening round of attacks in Panama City included the special operations raid on the Carcel Modelo prison (Operation Acid Gambit) to free Kurt Muse.
During the invasion, Noriega sought refuge in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City, surrendering to U.S. authorities in January 1990 after a standoff. He was subsequently transported to the United States, where he faced trial and was convicted on drug trafficking and racketeering charges in 1992.
Noriega was apprehended and transported to the US, where he faced charges outlined in the Miami indictment. Following a trial, he was found guilty on most counts, leading to a 40-year prison sentence. However, due to commendable behaviour while incarcerated, his sentence was later reduced, and he ultimately spent 17 years behind bars. Subsequently, in 2010, Noriega was extradited to France, where he was convicted of money laundering, resulting in a seven-year prison term (source).
In 2011, the French authorities handed Noriega over to Panama, where he was held accountable for the crimes committed during his regime. In 2017, Noriega’s health took a turn for the worse when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. The surgical procedure to address this condition was complicated, and he succumbed to the complications two months later (source; source).
On the other hand, Kurt Muse’s capture and subsequent treatment made him widely known, and his story gained international attention. His experiences have been documented in several books and articles, one of which he co-wrote. After the operation, Muse was reunited with his family, and the men who rescued him continued their careers in the Army. Likewise, the successful rescue operation marked an important milestone for American special forces. The team that rescued Muse became the first US counter-terrorism team to rescue an American hostage from enemy hands (source; source).