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The unusual autonomy granted the U.S. military commander in Panama has contributed to a series of American diplomatic embarrassments and has sometimes worked at cross-purposes to U.S. foreign policy goals since the invasion, according to senior administration officials.

A preliminary tally of the diplomatic fallout from Gen. Maxwell R. Thurman's unhampered command includes: 20 U.S. diplomats expelled from Nicaragua, one diplomatic protest by Nicaragua, one diplomatic protest by Peru and one resolution by the Organization of American States declaring U.S. conduct in Panama a violation of international law.These were the result of actions authorized by Thurman, a High Point, N.C., native, after the military success of Operation Just Cause was already assured.

State Department officials complain that American diplomats have been kept ``out of the loop,' and they are concerned that the general's single-mindedness will create more problems for them.

Some of the mistakes - as well as the general success of the invasion - stem partly from a little-known federal law that increased the power of the United States' highest military leaders, the Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, also known as the Goldwater-Nichols Act.

According to Sen. Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who heads the Armed Services Committee, the law played a big role in the invasion.

``The chain of command, which is all important, was shortened,' Nunn said. ``The less layers you have in the chain of command, the better you can execute the mission.'

That means that Thurman reports directly to Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, taking no orders from the U.S. ambassador to Panama, by tradition the paramount U.S. official in the country.

Not only has Thurman, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, not taken orders from the U.S. Embassy, he apparently has barely kept it, and thereby the State Department, informed of what he is up to.

Department officials here said that they spent most of the day Tuesday trying to find out what U.S. troops were doing outside the Peruvian ambassador's residence in Panama City. That same day, Peru's foreign ministry in Lima summoned U.S. Ambassador Anthony Quainton to protest what it said was interference with Peru's normal diplomatic activity.

Thurman, as it turns out, authorized U.S. troops to search cars at roadblocks set up outside the residence, where several former Panamanian officials had been granted political refuge, a respected custom in Latin America.

Asked whether the State Department had been consulted, the Pentagon replied: ``No prior coordination had been made by Task Force South with the American Embassy for the controlling and observing of access to and from the Peruvian ambassador's residence.'

While the U.S. military was angering Peru, whose government had been outspoken in its criticism of the Panama invasion, U.S. diplomats were trying to mollify the Peruvians.

Peru's cooperation is vital if the administration's war on drugs is to proceed. Peru is the largest producer of coca leaf, from which cocaine is derived.

President Alan Garcia of Peru said this week that he will send a subordinate to next month's Andean anti-drug summit promoted by President Bush. Garcia said he himself will not attend as long as the military occupation of Panama lasts. The United States has been trying to persuade him to change his mind.

Expulsion of the U.S. diplomats from Managua, Nicaragua, followed the illegal search of the Nicaraguan ambassador's residence in Panama City, Panama, by U.S. troops looking for arms. The United States apologized to Nicaragua and was allowed to assign six new American diplomats to replace the 20 expelled, for a net loss of 14.

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