In the days before the U.S. invasion of Panama, the operation was a tightly held secret. But Richard Gregorie started to suspect something might be up when he suddenly got a lot of calls from federal narcotics agents he knew. They were inquiring about the legal case against Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, and in calling Gregorie they were going to the source. In early 1988, after years of working with federal drug agents and fellow prosecutors, Gregorie, the chief assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, filed the indictment charging Noriega with drug trafficking. He later quit the job in frustration over what he thought was Washington's reluctance to go all the way in apprehending the renegade leader. Now, watching the military action on TV in his Miami condo, a jubilant Gregorie realized that his wish to see Noriega brought to justice might at last come true. "Until this happened, we weren't really fighting a war," he says. "We were making a jot of talk but not having any effect."

Gregorie quickly adds that the battle against the dictator still has a long way to go. Noriega's decision to take refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama City kept him beyond the reach of U.S. law, at least for the moment. (Experts say it is very doubtful that the embassy will turn its visitor over to the United States.) But the 42-year-old Gregorie, who is a private civil attorney in Miami, regards the events of recent months as a watershed. He points not only to Noriega's overthrow, but also to the all-out war launched by the Colombian government against the drug traffickers. "The drug cartels," says Gregorie, "have been handed a real blow."

Lately some news reports have suggested that if Noriega is brought back to the United States, the case against him may prove far from airtight. The former prosecutor concedes that "if you're expecting a videotape showing Noriega loading narcotics or a wiretap in which he's talking about drugs, that's not in the evidence." But he insists there are enough witnesses, including Noriega's personal pilot, to ensure that the former dictator doesn't beat the rap. "This case is as good as any of the major cases I've tried," he says.

Gregorie acknowledges that one snag could arise in the period before the trial. Noriega would be entitled to see and use any government documents needed for the case, including highly sensitive information. "It's a sticky issue," says Gregorie. "I can tell you that no prosecutor has been shown the full extent of those intelligence files." If the documents contain damaging or embarrassing material, the government could be obliged to come up with a way to prevent disclosure or perhaps be forced to drop the case.

Gregorie, for one, is confident that Noriega won't be able to wiggle through that loophole. While he feels that the system has in effect redeemed itself, he does voice one regret—that he probably won't be able to try the case himself. These days Gregorie spends most of his time handling liablity and insurance cases, but he still harbors the dream of doing battle with his longtime nemesis in court. "I'd be happy," he says, "to walk in there tomorrow morning."

—Bill Hewitt, Meg Grant in Miami