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.
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.
When he turned 18, Kurt married Annie, also 18, an American schoolteacher who worked for U.S. Defense Department schools in the Canal Zone. The couple had two children, Kimberly and Erik.
Beginning in 1968, Muse watched Manuel Noriega's rise to power, first behind the dictator General Omar Torrijos, then out front, putting more and more of Panama under his heel. While a colonel, Noriega conferred on himself the rank of general. In turn, the citizens of Panama conferred on him a nickname: Cara de pina, or "pineapple face"-a riff on the general's pock-marked face.
Noriega developed a reputation for capriciousness and cruelty, ordering his enemies tortured and, it eventually became clear, murdered. He allied himself with communist governments and with Colombia's ruthless Medellin cartel.
U.S. intelligence agencies leveraged Noriega's connections to their advantage. Then-CIA director George H.W. Bush authorized monetary payments to Noriega, who allowed the United States to set up listening posts in Panama. Bush knew Noriega was playing both ends against the middle, but considered the intelligence he delivered worth the price.
Kurt Muse along with others grew to despise Noriega. His PDF roughed up innocent citizens and generally took what it wanted. Though it seemed a minor nuisance at the time, one such incident lit the fire that would eventually burn Noriega down.
During the 1980s, Muse and his close friend, Tito Mouynes, served on the Central American Board of Directors for the Salvation Army. A refrigeration-company owner and professional musician, Mouynes had lost a leg to cancer as a child. He was a fiery Christian, a "praise the Lord" kind of guy who wove Scripture into his reasoning about everyday matters.
Meanwhile, Muse had grown up in the spiritually staid Episcopalian church-home of the "frozen chosen," he jokes-where he served as an altar boy. He generally believed in God, but was a little uncomfortable with Mouynes' praise-the-Lord persona. Still, he respected his friend's faith, even his attempts to bring Muse closer to God.
As a service project, the Salvation Army refurbished a home for Panama's destitute blind. In early 1987, Muse and Mouynes attended a ceremony inaugurating the facility. As an ancient Jamaican man, blind and beatific, warbled "Amazing Grace," Salvation Army members escorted the elderly residents into their new home.
In the midst of the ceremony, Muse noticed a commotion as several PDF soldiers elbowed their way into the crowd.
"They butted their way into this thing and started grabbing the blind people and ushering them into the home themselves," Muse remembers. Worse, the PDF filmed the incident, "documenting" the benevolence of General Noriega.
Repulsed, Muse backed into the street, crossed his arms, and looked on with a scowl. Mouynes went to stand beside him. Nearby, PDF radios crackled, fuzzy voices from some distant command post filtering through.
Muse emitted a noise of disgust. "I would love to get on that channel and give them a piece of my mind," he said.
Mouynes turned to Muse and leveled a meaningful gaze. "Kurt," he said, "that's a lot easier than you think."
Soon after, Mouynes, who was also a Motorola representative in Panama, obtained a cache of two-way radios. Then he, Muse, and a close circle of friends launched a harassment campaign against the PDF. They dispatched the soldiers on wild goose chases and pretended to be superior officers delivering chastisements on the air. Once, Mouynes keyed open the frequency and recited the Lord's prayer.
Then one day in 1987, the radio cat-and-mouse game took a sober turn. Muse and Mouynes stumbled on a way to hack into Radio Nacional, the network that carried Noriega's public speeches live. Suddenly, what had been a way to needle the goon squad became something much more serious: a way to strike at Pineapple Face himself.
With a powerful enough transmitter, Muse and his friends could override Noriega's propaganda speeches with a message to all Panamanians: Reject the dictator. Take back our country. Unite at the next election and vote him out.
Mouynes embraced the plan immediately and built the transmitter. "Here was this one-legged, part-time church organist who was trying to overthrow the government," Muse says now. "Definitely not the kind of guy you'd pick out of a lineup as a revolutionary."
Muse recruited another man to record a special message that would launch La Voz de la Libertad, the Voice of Liberty.
On Oct. 11, 1987, Noriega was to address a captive audience of thousands at a baseball stadium. That day, four conspirators gathered around the new transmitter, and Mouynes prayed over what they were about to do. Even to plan such treason was a capital offense. Each man knew that if he were caught, he would be killed-or wish he were dead.
The conspirators waited until Noriega began his speech. Then Muse pressed "transmit." And instead of the dictator, the people of Panama heard this:
We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a message of hope from the free and democratic people of Panama. . . . One day we will finally have an opportunity to cast our vote against the tyranny of General Noriega's dictatorship. . . . We beseech you to be brave, to persevere. . . . Together we can bury General Noriega's dictatorship under a mountain of ballots. . . . The free and democratic people of Panama now return this radio station to its broadcast of oppression.
"I was sure the next thing we would hear was PDF helicopters coming over the horizon to kill us all," Muse remembers. "We were terrified."
The men immediately shut down the transmitter, ran down the steps to their cars, and sped away.
Over the next 18 months, La Voz's radio insurrection grew. In addition to harassing the PDF and breaking into Noriega's speeches, the group broadcast messages of faith, liberty, and free elections on a local FM station three times a day. The confederates gained the cooperation of Roderick Esquivel, Panama's rightful vice president.
One day in 1988, a U.S. intelligence agent approached Muse and Mouynes offering logistical support for La Voz. By then, Noriega had become increasingly brazen and erratic. U.S. officials were looking for ways to hedge their bets. Muse's response to the agent was suspicion at first, then a fresh surge of revolutionary will based on their newfound resources.
Mouynes, however, looked upward.
"'Look how God has provided for us here,' Tito told me. He always tried to remind me of the providence behind things," Muse remembers. "He always let me know we were being guided. I did not accept that. I was in charge. I was in control. I did not accept that anybody, including God, was giving any sort of guidance. Tito, of course, believed the Lord was guiding everything."
But even Mouynes had moments of doubt, at one point confiding in Muse that he wasn't sure their rebellion was right in the eyes of God. Talking it over, the friends remembered a story they'd heard of a World War II chaplain whose ship had fallen under enemy attack. The conflicted cleric struggled to think of a prayer that fit the circumstances. Finally, he simply walked among the naval gunners shouting, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!"
Muse and Mouynes took from the story that when Christians become embroiled in a just war, they should fight.
After that, every time the duo prepared to override a Noriega speech, Mouynes would say, "Praise the Lord!"
Then Muse would hand him the tape and say, "Pass the ammunition!"
On April 5, 1989, Mouynes and Muse flew into Torrijos Airport, separating immediately upon arrival to avoid being linked. When Muse presented his papers at customs, his heart nearly stopped: Scotch-taped to the plexiglass was a piece of paper reading:
Now, in custody at the DENI office, with the colonel's gun muzzle pressed to his head, Muse thought of his wife, Annie, and his children, and prepared himself to die. Minutes spun out. Then the colonel cursed, shoved Muse's head forward with the muzzle, and stormed from the room.
"I was emotionally and spiritually crushed," Muse said. "I knew I was going to come apart at the seams."
He had been clinging to the hope that his U.S. citizenship might save him and his family. Now, though, that hope slipped away like dry sand through clasping fingers.
The other PDF also left the room and Muse found himself with a rare moment alone. Mouynes' face surfaced in his mind.
"I remembered that Tito always told me that in our lives, we will stumble, fall, and will not be able to recover on our own," Muse said. "He told me, 'Those are the times that if you don't get in the habit of letting God be in control, there will come a time when you have to let God be in control.'"
Now his friend's counsel burned in Muse's mind. At last, he closed his eyes and said aloud, "Lord, I'm defeated. I can't do this anymore. I've reached the bottom and I'm not going to make it."
Then, Muse says, "the most incredible thing happened."
The hair on the back of his neck stood up. A "beautiful presence" filled the room and was so palpable that he glanced around wildly, expecting to see its source. And then, almost as if someone were speaking to him, came three words: Don't be afraid.
Muse didn't hear the words; he felt them. And the feeling arrived not as hope, but as certainty. Suddenly, he sat up straighter in the metal chair. His backbone stiffened. His will to resist returned.
"At no point did I not worry that I was going to die," he says. "But at that moment, I realized I had a Friend who had always been there but I never knew it. I knew I was not alone."
The next day, in the same room, a PDF lieutenant forced Muse to watch as soldiers beat a Colombian man to death. "You watch!" the lieutenant told Muse. "This is your future."
The soldiers drove their steel-toed boots into the Colombian's belly, kidneys, testicles, ribs. They stomped on his skull, ripping the flesh from his face. They ground their heels into his eye sockets.
Horrified, heart banging in his chest, Muse pleaded to God: "Please-Lord-please-Lord-help-him-help-him-help-him-don't-let-him-die-don't-let-him-die."
When the prisoner could no longer beg for his life but only moan softly, the lieutenant picked up a lug wrench, swung it like a baseball bat, and crushed the man's chest.
The next day at an internationally televised press conference, Noriega announced he had captured Kurt Frederick Muse, American spy. Then soldiers stuffed Muse in a paddy wagon and carted him to Carcel Modelo, a prison infamous for the fact that those who entered its gates were never seen alive again.
Immediately after Muse's arrest, the U.S. government had spirited his wife, Annie, and children, Kimberly and Erik, to safety in the United States. The family then relentlessly lobbied U.S. officials to protect Muse and to make sure he received a fair trial. Technically, Muse had committed treason and was a lawful prisoner. Still, he was a U.S. citizen. A series of providential communications, including a personal plea from Kimberly Muse, 15, caught the attention of George H.W. Bush, who had by then been elected president. Initially, Bush authorized Operation Acid Gambit, the rescue of Muse by Delta Force.
As an American, Muse was protected under the Panama Canal treaty. That meant U.S. officials were able to force Noriega to allow visits from a U.S. military doctor and attorney. For the next nine months, both men used their visits to reconnoiter the prison, passing intelligence to Delta. The doctor, Air Force Lt. Col. James Ruffer, also passed messages between Muse and his wife in the form of Scripture verses.
After further provocation from Noriega, including a rigged election, the murder of a political enemy, and the killing of a Marine Corps officer, President Bush wrapped Acid Gambit into a new mission: Operation Just Cause, the liberation of Panama.
In late 1989, a faction disloyal to Noriega attempted a coup. The PDF quickly put it down, tossed the traitors into Carcel Modelo, and blamed the U.S. government. Noriega then issued a warning: At the next hint of U.S. aggression, Kurt Muse would die.
Muse was sitting in his cell when a PDF soldier in camouflage face paint and full battle dress walked up and peered through the bars. In the corridor, the soldier set up a machine gun on a bipod stand, threaded in a bullet belt, and aimed the weapon at Muse's chest.
Muse was 100 percent certain his life was over. "Thinking you're going to die is totally different than knowing you're going to die," he said. Terror gripped him.
Smirking, the painted soldier stared Muse down. With one hand, he lifted the tail of the bullet belt then let it down slowly:
The torment rattled Muse to his core. He crept into a darker part of the cell and lay down flat on his back on the ground, shaking uncontrollably. "My heart raced, and I prayed and prayed: 'I'm afraid, Lord. I'm terrified! I'm going to die! What do I do?'"
Muse isn't sure, but he thinks 30 minutes passed. Then, as suddenly as it had during his interrogation, a peace descended on his heart. "It was the same thing, the same message: 'Don't be afraid. I'm with you.'"
Muse took a deep breath and exhaled. An image came to him of old film clips, Jewish people in Hitler's concentration camps, walking calmly to their deaths. "I had never understood that," Muse says now. "I had always told myself that if it were me, I would charge the machine guns. I wouldn't go down without a fight."
But suddenly Muse understood the Holocaust victims completely. "I realized I was going to die, and there was no reason to fight. There was a certain quiet acquiescence to it."
Muse sat up in his cell, found a scrap of paper, and wrote a final message to his family. Then, he says, "I folded my hands in my lap, looked at the soldier, and waited for him to shoot me."
But when sunup came, the soldier packed up his weapon and left.
"You can't imagine the joy of being alive!" Muse says now. He had had accidental near-death experiences before, but this was different: "When this happened, I had a profound sense of gratitude and an understanding that this happened for a purpose. I have been seeking that purpose since that day when God gave me a new life."
On Dec. 20, 1989, Delta Force stormed Carcel Modelo and rescued Kurt Muse. During the subsequent hunt for Noriega, Delta operators discovered that the dictator was also a religious man. But as was his style, he played both spiritual ends against the middle: In one Noriega home, Delta Force found a pair of altars, one Catholic and one satanic. On the run from U.S. forces, Noriega chose the former faith as his port of refuge, seeking asylum at the Vatican embassy in Panama City. U.S. troops kept him surrounded there until, on Jan. 3, 1990, he surrendered.
April 5 (1989): Returning to Panama from Miami, Kurt Muse is arrested under Noriega's orders.
May 7: Panama holds presidential elections, and former president Jimmy Carter, sent as an international observer, declares them fraudulent.
May 10: Noriega breaks up demonstrations protesting the election then nullifies the results.
May 11: President George H.W. Bush sends additional troops to Panama and prepares to evacuate Americans.
Aug. 31: Panama's sitting National Assembly is dissolved and Noriega's close friend Francisco Rodriguez takes over the interim government.
Sept. 1: Bush severs diplomatic ties with the country.
Sept. 4: Bush designates Noriega and various associates as Cuban agents, forbidding U.S. citizens and companies to conduct business with them.
Oct. 3: Noriega squelches an attempted coup.
Dec. 15: National Assembly declares war on United States and proclaims Noriega "maximum leader."
Dec. 20: U.S. forces invade Panama to depose Noriega, simultaneously rescuing Muse.
Jan. 3 (1990): Noriega flees to the Vatican but surrenders to U.S. troops