Special Operations

Operation Acid Gambit (1989)

Operation Acid Gambit was a plan to retrieve Kurt Muse, an American civilian living in Panama and widely reported to be a CIA operative incarcarated in the Carcel Modelo, a notorious prison in Panama City. Muse had been arrested in 1989 for setting up covert anti-Noriega radio transmissions in Panama.

Political considerations delayed the raid, conducted by 23 Delta Force operators (SFOD) and supported by the Night Stalkers (160th Special Operations Aviations Regiment), until the United States invaded Panama to arrest Noriega, in Operation Just Cause on December 20th, 1989.

SOF Rescue of Kurt Muse

Attorney General of Panama Carlos Villalaz speaks with Kurt Muse on the evening of his arrest.
Attorney General of Panama Carlos Villalaz speaks with Kurt Muse on the evening of his arrest.

The once quiet Panamanian night was shattered with multiple explosions, the staccato of machine gun fire and shouting. Two darkened helicopters carrying heavily armed U.S. Special Operations Forces swooped in low, narrowly avoiding city buildings and enemy fire. They safely landed on the roof of the prison, Carcel Modelo. Their mission; rescue an American citizen being held hostage somewhere inside.

Once off the helicopters, the Soldiers fought their way inside. They had to act quickly to deny the enemy the opportunity to murder the hostage. As the Soldiers made their way into the building they tossed smoke grenades for cover in the narrow halls. Target aiming lights mounted on weapons sliced through the dust and smoke filled halls. Clearing one cell after another the Soldiers found him. In an instant, they blew the cell door open, and shielded the hostage with their own bodies to protect him from a possible hidden enemyassassin and shouted “Muse, we’re here to take you home.”

With those words, Kurt Muse, was set free from nine months of captivity at the hands of Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega and the Panamanian defense forces. His freedom was secured by members of the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the Night Stalkers.

Muse had spent most of his life in Panama City and considered himself more Panamanian than American, “I not only grew up in Panama, I was educated in Panama City, a true expatriate,” he said.

“Panama was in tough times,” Muse said. Noriega, was using the PDF for drug trafficking, money laundering, arms smuggling, and physical violence to consolidate his power and strangle Panamanian democracy.

Muse and his Panamanian friends decided to wage a peaceful revolution. He took on the leadership role of the underground movement, and used his lifelong American and Panamanian business connections for financial and technical assistance. The group decided the best method of reaching the common Panamanian citizen was through radio broadcasting anti-Noriega messages. The movement came to be known as The Voice of Liberty.

Noriega became incensed at their broadcasts, and had his PDF looking for the conspirators. Through luck and skill they always managed to stay one step ahead of Noriega, and the PDF, Muse said.

Muse’s group, the Voice of Liberty, decided a large mass event was needed to act as a revolutionary catalyst. Organizers wanted 100,000 people on the street in support of a peaceful demonstration to successfully overthrow Noriega.

The event Muse and his group chose would be Noriega’s official state address to the Panamanian people. On that day, an audience of more than 20,000 Panamanians had gathered to hear Noriega’s speech. Just as he began to talk Muse’s groups first prerecorded uprising message went live.

The two-minute recording demanded free and democratic elections and completely interrupted Noriega’s State of the Union address.

The next day newspaper headlines screamed of imperialist yankee interference and propaganda. A furious Noriega set out to acid-gambit-sfodcapture Muse and his pirate radio crew, he hired experts from East Germany and Cuba to capture Muse’s team, he recalled. Muse’s arrest came after a trip to Miami to acquire more radio equipment and money. “As I was going through customs they had a book; if your name was in that book you disappeared,” he said. Additionally, on the wall, was a piece of paper that had Muse’s name on it and to arrest him on site. Muse described the moment; “I saw the paper with my name on it, I just froze.” He was immediately arrested and placed in the Carcel Modelo, a notorious prison in the heart of Panama City.

“I was a stick in his eye,” Muse said of Noriega. The U.S. State Department wanted Noriega gone and they were using Muse as a propaganda and diplomatic tool against him. Noriega and the PDF even thought Muse was a Central Intelligence Agency spy, he said.

Muse felt one of the things keeping him from being physically tortured was his American birth and U.S. citizenship. One day a Panamanian army colonel and an immigration official attempted to, but could not find any Panamanian bloodline in Muse. He still believes that fact alone prevented the colonel from physically torturing and possibly even killing him.

Though he was not physically harmed, Muse’s incarceration was mentally brutal. By December’s rescue mission, he had been held hostage at Carcel Modelo for nine months. He endured solitary confinement, threats of violence, death and the screams of tortured Panamanians.

“You died a million deaths,” he said. Twice, Muse said he had a gun put to his head and had the trigger pulled, nothing happened. “Just evil people — horrible people doing horrible things to their own people.”

Muse always had at least one guard assigned to him with the sole mission to execute him should a rescue attempt be made.

Muse’s hostage rescue mission was dubbed Operation Acid Gambit. The mission coincided with the American invasion of Panama and the U.S. objective was overthrowing Noriega. Both missions were scheduled for Dec. 20, 1989.

“Sometime after midnight I heard nothing, pitch black and silence, then I heard a machine gun, a couple rounds, then some more,” Muse said. “Then it got all quiet,silence, eerie silence, and tense.”

Muse remembered the guard with the orders to kill him. The guard ran down the hall and banged on the officer’s quarters. Muse said he watched with relief as they went running downstairs, presumably to defend the prison entrances.

Again, Muse swore he heard nothing. Then, seconds later, he looked across the street to see Noriegas’ headquarters being pummeled by gunfire and beginning to disintegrate into fine bits of gravel.

“I peeked outside for a second, again, and then got flat as a pancake,” Muse said. “Debris from the fighting was flying in the window. There was not a sandbag left on the headquarters, and the heavy weaponry was damaged and lying all about.”

In the ensuing confusion the U.S. SOF Soldiers charged in. “At that point I knew I won,” Muse said. “Even if I had died that day, everything I fought for was being rewarded. I felt a tremendous sense of victory for what I stood for.”

The Soldiers grabbed him, put a helmet and bullet-proof vest on him then escorted him to the rooftop. “That’s where all the action was going on,” Muse said. “Tracers were going everywhere.”

They shoved Muse inside a AH-6 (Little Bird) helicopter on the roof, and the Soldiers firing from the roof edges scrambled to get back on the helicopter. “The helicopter couldn’t take it, it couldn’t take off,” he recalled.

The pilot managed to get the helicopter to lift off but it didn’t go far. After barely clearing the roof the helicopter and its human cargo plummeted toward the streets below.

“We headed straight down toward one of the prison walls and narrowly missed smashing into it,” Muse said. They hard landed on the street;. The Soldiers onboard jumped off and proceeded to engage targets as the pilot struggled to regain control of the craft. Once the helicopter was stabilized the pilot summoned everyone back aboard. Some of the Soldiers didn’t even have time to hook back up their safety harness.

“Remarkably, the pilot drove the helicopter straight down the street, like a car,” Muse said. As the helicopter lifted off several Soldiers were shot, and a couple fell off. “That’s when I realized we were getting really shot up.” Muse said.

The helicopter crashed. “I developed tunnel vision,” Muse said. “It was me and the Soldier next to me.” Together, they jumped off the helicopter and were making it to the safety of a wall when the Soldier escorting him fell and pulled Muse down with him.

“It was all slow motion,” Muse recalled. As the battle raged around him he lay next to the unconscious Soldier hoping the Panamanians would figure he was dead. The Soldier opened his eyes and asked him if he was okay? Muse said it was incredible.

The Soldier had been knocked out by the helicopter rotor blade, but survived. Muse had lost his helmet. Had the Soldiers helmeted head not taken the rotor blow, they both would be dead. “It was the second time I was rescued,” Muse said.

The two of them sought the cover of an apartment wall. Muse saw most everyone on the rescue team had been wounded but formed a perimeter and continued fighting.

“As a civilian, I was in awe, despite the severity of their wounds, these fellows, warriors, continued to operate as if they were not wounded. It was an amazing scene,” Muse said.

Armored personnel carriers from a nearby Calvary patrol fought their way through the city and linked up with the rescue team. For Kurt Muse, he could not have wished for a better holiday gift, putting nine months of a nightmarish hostage experience behind him and being reunited with family and friends. For the Special Forces Soldiers and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Group, (Airborne), Night Stalkers, they conducted one of the first successful counterterrorist/hostage rescue missions in history since WWII.


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