Ross McDermott for WORLD


Military | Imprisoned just after Easter 1989 by Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, Kurt Muse found belief-and renewed life-on the night of his execution. For the first time, Muse, the first American hostage ever rescued by the Army's elite Delta Force, shares the story of the faith that lit the fire that freed a nation

Issue: "The waiting game," March 22, 2008

The granite-faced interrogator burst into the room flanked by a pair of enforcers. Smirking, the interrogator held a piece of paper in his hand.

"How long did you think you could keep your secret, Mr. Muse?" he asked in Spanish.

Kurt Muse, an American citizen, sat on a hard metal chair in a cramped office of the National Department of Investigations (DENI), General Manuel Noriega's secret police. Muse had lost track of time. Noriega's interrogators had kept him awake for at least two days and two nights, though it could've been longer. He knew the dictator's Panamanian Defense Force (PDF) had arrested him on April 5, 1989. But the watch he was now wearing didn't keep the date, and the hands spun without meaning.

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So far, interrogators' questions seemed tentative. Exploratory. They seemed to know Muse was somehow involved in a plot to overthrow Noriega. But they had not produced any real evidence. They had not mentioned the clandestine radio transmissions, Muse's confederates-or the involvement of the CIA.

So far, Muse had managed not to incriminate himself or anyone else. But the cruelty of Noriega's thugs was legendary, and fear, hunger, and sleep deprivation now cloaked his mind in a cottony fog. He found he could not remember the answers he'd already given. He feared he was about to crack.

Muse eyed the paper in the interrogator's hand. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said.

The interrogator thrust the paper into the American's face: "This."

Examining the sheet, relief flooded through Muse, and he fought the urge to smile. "That's my son's Cub Scout roster."

Rage flushed the interrogator's face. "I am not a fool, Mr. Muse!" He jabbed his finger at a notation next to Muse's name. PDC. "You are the American coordinator for the Partido Democrata Cristiano."

The Christian Democratic Party. Noriega despised the group and made its members frequent targets. But Muse had nothing to do with the PDC, and he laughed aloud with relief. "It's a Cub Scout list! PDC stood for Picnic Day Committee. I was the chairman of the Picnic Day Committee."

"You think this is funny, Mr. Muse?"

The American's smile vanished.

The interrogator turned to his enforcers. "He thinks this is funny. He thinks this is a game. He thinks he can lie to us."

"I don't-" Muse began.

The door burst open again. In three long strides, a DENI colonel closed the distance to Muse, unholstering a 9mm Baretta as he came. He stepped behind Muse, who instantly felt the gun's barrel boring into the back of his skull.

"You've been lying to us all along, Mr. Muse," the colonel said. "You think it's funny to lie. I think it's funny to blow your brains out."

Until last August, it had been nearly two decades since Manuel Noriega was much of a news item. In December 1989, U.S. military special operations units captured the dictator during Operation Just Cause, the mission that liberated Panama. Extradited to the United States to face charges of narcotics trafficking, Noriega was convicted in 1992 and sent to a Miami federal prison. In August 2007, he was paroled and today remains in U.S. custody, fighting extradition to France. In late January, a federal judge blocked Noriega's extradition pending the deposed dictator's appeals.

Kurt Muse is keeping an eye on the whereabouts of the man who held him hostage for nine months, and who once proclaimed to the world that if America invaded Panama, Muse would be the first to die. Meanwhile, Muse has carved out a new life in the United States, speaking about his ordeal to churches and corporations, and serving as chief operating officer of a company that provides security and surveillance technologies to military and civilian agencies.

In 2006, Muse published Six Minutes to Freedom, the story of his imprisonment and his rescue by America's elite Delta Force. But lately, Muse told WORLD, he feels God has impressed on him that his story is more than a military action saga. It is also the story of two men-one strong in his Christian faith and one a nominal believer-and how God worked through them both to help free a nation.

When Kurt Muse was 5 years old, his parents moved the family to Panama, seeking an escape from the American rat race. They lived in the Canal Zone, where Kurt's father Charlie ran a successful printing supply company. Kurt attended Panamanian schools and grew up playing in the streets, a big, friendly blond kid in a sea of brown-skinned amigos.


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