WASHINGTON, Dec. 20, 1989 (UPI) - When Manuel Antonio Noriega declared a state of war with the United States last week, he opened up the possibility of U.S. military action within the legal bounds of the Panana Canal Treaty.
Noriega's hand-picked parliament unanimously supported the declaration of war and named Noriega head of government, apparently a desperation measure by Noriega to avoid another attempted coup and to prevent his possible extradition to the United States to face drug charges.
But under a companion piece of legislation signed in 1977 at the same time as the canal treaty, the United States reserved its right to ''defend and secure the Canal in time of war ... or when the president considers war is imminent.''
That clause, according to 1979 State Department testimony at the time of ratification, would supersede another treaty clause specifically stating the United States does not have the right ''to intervene in the internal affairs of Panama, an independent sovereign state.''
In his brief address to the nation Wednesday morning, President Bush said, ''I am fully committed to implementing the Panama Canal Treaty and turn over the canal to Panama in the year 2000.
''The actions we've taken and cooperation of a new democratic government in Panama will permit us to honor these commitments as soon as the new government recognizes a qualified candidate, a Panamanian, to be administrator of the Canal, as called for in the treaty.''
Noriega had already submitted the name of his nominee for canal administrator, but the United States, which did not recognize the Noriega government, refused to accept it. Under the rules of the gradual change of control, Panama is to nominate an administrator in 1990, but the nomination has to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
Under the treaties signed in 1977, the United States retains primary responsibility for Canal operations and defense until the end of the century, but with increasing Panamanian participation. Panamanians already make up more than 70 percent of the Canal workforce.
The Canal Zone, as a legal entity, was abolished by the treaties and the Panamanian government assumed control, while the United States remained responsible for the security of the Canal.
The Canal is operated under a U.S. government agency known as the Panama Canal Commission, with five Americans and four Panamanian directors. In 1990, with the advent of the first Panamanian administrator, the balance of power will shift in the direction of Panama, but the United States will still be able to set canal tolls until the end of the century.
The battle in the Senate over treaty ratification came down to a pitched battle between conservatives -- who opposed the ''give-away'' -- and liberals -- who felt ceding control was the only realistic course in a world that was moving toward an end to U.S. domination of the hemisphere.
President Carter campaigned relentlessly for ratification in one of the most intense examples of political horse-trading in recent memory.
Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., finally was persuaded to drop his ''reservation'' language, which would have specifically permitted U.S. military intervention after the year 2000.
The same idea was contained in a compromise couched in milder tones, allowing for such action but prohibiting the United States from intervening in Panama's internal affairs.
On April 18, 1979, the Senate approved the treaties, 68-32.