Lt Col Norman Laird, USAF, Ret. Service period: 1963 to 1983.

Interview conducted June 2016 by John Thomas Wiseman IV for the Lint Center’s Virtual Archives for National Security.

John:  How would you define National Security?

Lt Col Laird:  Certainly that would encompass the protection of the United States, all of its laws, which govern therein, and all of the people within the United States’ boundaries.  On numerous occasions that has occurred for me because between 1963 and 1983 I served in the United States Air Force from the position of Second Lieutenant through Lieutenant Colonel.  Also during that period of time I was a Special Agent with the Office of Special Investigations.  I also am a graduate during that period of the FBI National Academy and also did work for the Central Intelligence Agency (from 1967-1969) during that period of time.  I guess my most memorable assignment, though I have had several which I have thoroughly enjoyed, was being the chief of security police of the Canal Zone in Panama between 1977 and 1980 which was the period we call the “Treaty Transition” because that was when we were negotiating and then signed the [Panama Canal Treaty] turning the Panama Canal back to the country of Panama.

John:  While you were in Panama, what did you do and what were your daily activities?

Lt Col Laird:  It was busy as you can imagine for me during the three-year period because it literally was the period where we negotiated the final negotiation for the treaty.  I sat on the treaty committee and represented the United States for Air Force Security and Military Security and that was the period of time we signed the treaty, which the President of the United States came down and numerous members of Congress and I briefed all of them personally on what our security for the canal zone, Air Force and others encompassed.  During that three-year period we would meet on a weekly basis with members of the Panamanian government and Panamanian Security Committee.  I had the dubious privilege of meeting with, at that time Colonel Noriega, who was head of their head of security for secret police and who later became General Noriega and of course President of the country after we had turned everything over to the Panamanian government.

John:  What other major figures did you meet and what were those interactions like?

Lt Col Laird:  We briefed personally about 200 members of Congress during that period.  The Secretary of Defense was there on a regular basis and just many, many individuals from the U.S. government.  It was just continuous.  We of course had, during that period, several incidents.  As an example I had all of my pets killed at my house as a warning and told that it was a warning whereupon we increased my security detail, my personal security detail.  However, we always knew at anytime, because the Panama Canal Zone is only 5 Miles wide on each side of the Canal that they could literally do anything to us.  They could put a halt to all of the transitions through the canal and they threw that in our face all of the time and of course our final words from the U.S. government were that we were to give them anything that they asked for and to get the treaty signed so that’s what came about from it all.  To give you an example of the size of my security force when I first got there in 1977 I had 125 security personnel Air Force wise, which we took to 1200 by the time the treaty was about to be signed and the army took their force up to 10,15, or 20,000 down there and even with that number we always realized that they could shut down the Canal anytime they wanted because of how easy it was to get into the Canal Zone.  No fences or any kind of that stuff except around our bases of course.

We normally had lunch with General Noriega at his office, which was of course on a Panamanian military installation and so what he said to me was that: “I understand that you really enjoy Chinese food,” and I said yes that’s probably my favorite and he said:  “Well I have this great Chinese restaurant that I go to quite often and I’d like for you to accompany me there for lunch.” Now normally when we had our meetings we of course were in uniform so I was in uniform and I didn’t particularly want to go downtown but I said “OK” and so we jumped in his car and then all of a sudden a couple of escort vehicles fell in around us and then also a couple of big trucks loaded with Panamanian troops.  We go downtown Panama to this really super exclusive restaurant and he said: “Wait here a minute,” and about that time a couple of guys jumped out of the car and went inside of the restaurant and all of a sudden the patrons inside of the restaurant were asked to leave.  We went into the restaurant and out on the street we could see the two truckloads of guys out there setting up machine guns in the street.  Had a great lunch, of course I figured and told him that my Air Force career is coming to an end with this because everybody I’m sure that was outside recognized that here was Colonel Noriega and an Air Force officer running everybody off.  Anyway, it was an interesting thing and all I asked him to do is that we never do it again.  Luckily I got no feedback from my bosses but I reported to my General immediately what had happened and he just laughed about it.

One of the sadder things was my sons and family were down there with me in Panama and they were going to college and were actually just finishing up when the negotiations were getting very serious and one night we had all of our pets killed.  We had some monkeys and other things and we knew immediately what had occurred so we of course increased the security around my home and I sent my boys back to the states.

We had a couple of bombings that occurred down there during this period of time.  They bombed the Commissary, which is like the grocery store for the military.  They were just simply making it known that they could get to us anytime they wanted no matter how many troops we had down there because it was just so open.  The fences were the jungle so they could come through that anytime they wanted.  Want to hear more [stories]?

John: Sure!

Lt Col Laird:  Well, I was the resident agent, which is back when I was a Special Agent with the Office of Special Investigations and this is during my first 8 years of duty with the Air Force.  As a Special Agent I never wore a uniform.  I never had on a uniform until I had been in the Air Force for 8 years.  I started out just doing the routine things like background investigations and that’s what every agent does just to get them accustomed to talking with people and you’re constantly going to different schools.  I had gone to several schools down at Eglin Air Force base for some terrorism/anti-terrorism activities.  I had actually flown down to Panama for a school down there which was basically a jungle-survival kind of school and coming back from Panama we were flying in a 4 engine non-jet, prop type aircraft coming back and we lost an engine and the pilot told us: “Don’t worry about that, this thing will fly”.  Well we lost a second engine and he suggested at that time that we start worrying-and we were off of the coast of Nicaragua which was an unfriendly country to us at the time-so he said we better start throwing everything out of the airplane to lighten the load because we had dropped down to about 2000 feet and so we threw out all of the seats and luggage and everything that we had on board and we still were descending, not nearly as badly but we were descending so the pilot said: “Hang onto your seats,” which we didn’t have so we all sat on the floor and strapped ourselves in and he did a crash landing on the beach in Nicaragua.  Well, nobody got hurt or anything like that.  We landed on a nice sandy beach, and of course tore up the airplane.  No one was injured.  There were 8 Special Agents on board and the crew and so we started looking out and we hadn’t been there more than 5 minutes and we were getting out of the plane and all of these armed troops surrounded us.  We found out that we had landed right outside of a Nicaraguan military base and so they surrounded us and we told them that we are all U.S. Military and that we had an emergency and of course they immediately noted that we didn’t have any uniforms on us.  So they told us to get back in and around the airplane, it didn’t catch on fire and we were held there for 3 days until we could get the American ambassador to come out there and bail us out.  Right after that, I got an assignment to go to Portuguese language school and spent six months with Berlitz at their language school in intensive language training and my next assignment was a Special Agent, which was then called a “resident agent” because it was a one-person location.  My actual assignment was in the Azores, which is a group of islands off the coast of Portugal, about 800 miles.  We had an Air Force base there and I would travel between there and Angola and Mozambique in Africa and then back to Portugal and then over to Madrid, Spain which was my headquarters.  I did that for 18 months.  The biggest things in the islands were minor investigations and that kind of thing, a number of suicides.  The Russians lost a submarine off the coast there so that brought a lot of Russian sub activity into the area and that was one of the things that I was constantly having to take note of.  On one of my trips back to Lisbon I got a call from my boss in Madrid that said that they were having some problems staffing all of the surveillances on the Polish consulate.  Now, in Spain at the time, there weren’t any Russian embassies or consulates except for the Polish so we constantly kept their people under surveillance so I went over for this mission.  It was almost like a 6-week vacation, and one very late night we were conducting surveillance of one of the consular people that we knew was an intelligence officer.  We were following him and he made us and took off and we took off after him and at about 3 o’clock in the morning we were racing through the streets of Madrid at 50,60,70 miles and hour and about that time he ran a red light and we ran the red light but the Guardia Nacional noted us and not him and pulled us over with guns drawn and when they found us with guns they hauled all of our butts off to jail.  I can say that is the one and only time that I can recall being locked up in jail.  Once again the American ambassador came to our assistance and bailed us out.

John:  What is one reason you believe that youth should join government service?

Lt Col Laird: I’ve got several but the first one being to serve my country.  I did that, certainly for joining the military and I would also do it for the agency or the FBI or the Secret Service.

John:  What is one bit of advice you would give to new personnel thinking about starting a career involving national security?

Lt Col Laird:  Find yourself an outstanding mentor, a person that can help you along.