On December 20, 1989, more than 20,000 American troops invaded Panama as part of Operation Just Cause. The cause was to apprehend General Manuel Noriega, who was facing U.S. drug trafficking charges, among others. More than 500 Panamanian soldiers and civilians were killed, as well as 23 American soldiers. Noriega hid in the Vatican Embassy while U.S. troops tried to flush him out by blaring The Clash, U2, and Van Halen at all hours. After 11 days, Noriega surrendered and was taken to Miami, where he was tried and found guilty of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering.
This is common historical knowledge. What isn’t well known is how the seeds of Operation Just Cause were first planted when an FBI agent in Detroit went undercover in an outlaw biker gang. This is the tale Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jake Halpern tells in the new nine-part podcast Deep Cover.
The story follows FBI agent Ned Timmons and how, after arresting a biker in a Detroit bar in 1982, he goes undercover and becomes embroiled in a global drug cartel that eventually leads to Noriega. But it’s not as straightforward as all that.
This story feels like Narcos-meets-Sons of Anarchy—as directed by the Coen Brothers.
Which is fitting because it all started when Stowaway Entertainment producer Jeff Singer sent Halpern an unpublished manuscript of a novel written by a former FBI agent.
That agent was Timmons, but that book was a wee bit too pulpy to be believed.
“The premise of the podcast is that I get this unpublished memoir sent to me from this former FBI agent, who tells this incredible tale, and I kind of ask, ‘Could this possibly be true?’ Much of the reporting is following this unreliable narrative of the memoir.”
As we follow the story, listeners get to hear the difference between truth and fiction, as portions of the novel are read aloud by award-winning actor Walton Goggins (Justified, The Righteous Gemstones), juxtaposed with Halpern then sifting out what really happened.
Pushkin Industries cofounder and CEO Jacob Weisberg says that as soon as he read Halpern’s pitch, his jaw hit the floor.
“I just thought it was the greatest, craziest story I’d ever heard,” says Weisberg, who launched Pushkin in 2018 with Malcolm Gladwell. “It’s a landmark for Pushkin in a couple of respects. It was the first idea that came to us that we didn’t originate. And it’s also our first long-form narrative show.”
Both Weisberg and Halpern are aware of the true-crime connotation in podcasts, and they quickly differentiate Deep Cover from the scores of murder chronicles plugging your ears.
“I think that’s partly because the true-crime podcast is such a cliché,” says Weisberg. “We’ve shied away from projects that smacked of that, so we were really looking for the right story and storyteller to do our first narrative, and we wanted it to be categorically and stylistically different from any other podcast.”
Halpern says it was Weisberg who first told him that it reminded him of a Coen Brothers movie. “We were very conscious from the start that there was this oddball, quirky element, and it does get dark at times, but there is this comic absurdity to it,” says Halpern. “And then there’s this real piece of history to it, so I saw it as genre-bending. Yes, it was true crime, but it’s also spoofing true crime with the novel. I’m hoping it also appeals to people interested in history, with the invasion of Panama, and this is a really strange backstory to that moment.”
Weisberg says there’s something fascinating in what happens when people assume different identities and go undercover. “It’s a very rich and resonant theme to explore in a podcast,” he says. “And that made me think it was the kind of crime story I wanted to tell and listen to.”
Deep Cover debuts July 13, with new episodes every Monday wherever you get your podcasts.