J. Douglas McCullough is the author, with Les Pendleton, of Sea of Greed: The True Story of the Investigation and Prosecution of Manuel Antonio Noriega. He is a North Carolina Court of Appeals Judge, and during the 1980s he served as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh.
Q: Why did you decide to write Sea of Greed?
A: I decided to write Sea of Greed around the time of Operation Just Cause and the invasion of Panama. I was an active reserve officer in the Marine Corps stationed at Marine Forces Atlantic Headquarters in Norfolk and serving in the G-2 (Intelligence) section.
I had attended a CIA briefing on Latin America and the CIA analyst was describing the U.S. government relationship with Gen. Noriega as good with him being a source on Castro/Cuba and further describing him as cooperative on drug investigations.
This was after I had de-briefed [drug trafficker] Steven Kalish and the reporting agents from Customs, DEA and FBI had sent their reports up to their respective headquarters, thus I thought the CIA should have known about Noriega.
Later, when Noriega was indicted and there was mounting tension prior to the invasion I was brought on to active duty to brief the admiral and general in Norfolk who had responsibility for Panama.
I realized that this was truly an untold story. Even they did not know what caused Noriega to fall out of favor. While the trial eventually provided some of the details, this story has much more.
Steven Kalish was the first non-Hispanic witness to implicate Noriega. Up until he was available to testify, the CIA would claim that any Colombian or Panamanian who stated Noriega was corrupt was a person with political motivations and not trustworthy. With Kalish, a Houston high school dropout, flying Noriega around in his Lear jet, this stance became impossible to maintain.
It took me a long time to get around to writing the book, but I knew back then I wanted to. Maybe a longer answer than you wanted.
Q: How did you research the book, and, despite your own involvement in some of the events, was there anything that particularly surprised you as you conducted your research?
A: My research was aided considerably by the fact that I retained a set of the investigative reports for the entire criminal case that I prosecuted involving Kalish. A set of the "discovery" that I would normally provide to the defense lawyers was the principal research material.
I then found newspaper articles detailing the investigation in the Detroit newspaper helpful, as well as Miami papers that set forth the Noriega trial testimony of Kalish and other witnesses.
I even read and copied the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals case that upheld Kalish's Texas conviction for it described some of the marijuana loads that Kalish ran into the Gulf.
What surprised me during the course of my research was how long the D.C. people continued to deal with Noriega even after they knew about Kalish's interview and corroborating evidence.
During my research I learned that Lt. Col. Oliver North tried to use Kalish's cooperation to force Noriega to be more cooperative concerning the struggle in El Salvador. That was beyond the scope of my book, but very surprising to me.
Q: Why did you choose to write the book using dialogue? Do you see the book as purely nonfiction, or as a work based on actual events?
A: When I started to write, I first tried to write a screenplay, but found I really don't know how to do that. While making that attempt I would set a scene (the scenes later became chapters), would populate the scene with characters, and write down what they might have said.
I say might, as we don't know the actual words spoken, but we do know what they did next, so the words would have been similar. I gave up in frustration and boxed all my materials.
In 2003 I re-married and as I and my wife, Lucci, started consolidating households she discovered my boxed up research and drafts. She prodded me into working on this, but as a book this time. It still took a long time to do as I could only work on it part time.
Since I had the scenes that became chapters and a draft of what the individuals in the chapter might have said if it had been a screenplay, dialogue just seemed natural and went from there.
I see this book as a work of non-fiction, for everything in it actually happened. It may read a bit like a work based on actual events only due to the style, dialogue...
Also, at the end I have included a bibliography to demonstrate the source documents for each chapter and explain about the dialogue being our words, although there are places where the dialogue came straight from a report.
Q: Are there lasting repercussions today from the events you describe in the book?
A: The most obvious lasting repercussion from the events described in the book concerns the government of Panama. It has been transformed from a country ruled by a dictator to a democracy. The Panamanians have had elections and have a popularly elected government.
The criminal case was not the cause for the invasion of Panama, however. Noriega was indicted in February 1988 and the invasion did not occur until December 1989. During the interim, Noriega allied himself with Cuba, and committed more provocative acts such as attempting to sabotage American equipment.
The invasion only took place after Panamanian security forces began killing Americans in the Canal Zone, with the slaying of a Naval Officer in Panama City being the final straw.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I am preparing to be interviewed…for a statewide TV show on our PBS channel (WUNC TV). It will be taped and unedited so it is like a "live" show when it runs. The show, "Book Watch," hosted by D.G. Martin, runs at noon on Sunday and at 8 pm on Thursdays…
I am also writing a short piece that I intend to submit to Our State magazine. Our State is a magazine that is all about North Carolina and has articles ranging from history to out-of-the-way places, food, vacations spots, almost anything.
My article will deal with the marijuana smugglers of the 1980s being the last of a long tradition of smugglers, pirates, and rum runners along the North Carolina coast.
I am also in the process of working on a novel based on actual events but which I will fictionalize, and the lead character will be a female smuggler. There was a real one, and I will probably embellish her personality a bit. Hopefully it will be as entertaining as Sea of Greed.
The real woman used to hang out with the Studio 54 types in NYC, ski with rock stars like Joan Jett, and when not partying would smuggle multi-ton loads of hashish from Lebanon.
I also have a "day job" as I am a judge on the N.C. Court of Appeals and live in Atlantic Beach where I can hear and see the water.
In the summer my wife and I are excellent "crew" and spend a lot of time on our outer banks, our area being the southern tip of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb