CIA flagIn a virtually unnoticed exchange on February 3, Congressman Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) called the CIA to task for its incredibly ham-fisted handling of an April 20, 2001 incident in Peru. In collaboration with a CIA aircrew working as part of a joint program to interdict drug trafficking, the Peruvian air force shot down a plane carrying an American missionary family, killing two. In an angry tone, the Republican congressman denounced the CIA’s response, released the actual film of the incident, and triggered an official statement from the agency — conveniently left off the CIA website to attract as little attention as possible.

This episode is important as part of the continuing effort to bring accountability to CIA operations. More importantly, it sheds light on the low standards of identification and evidence the CIA uses in selecting its targets. It’s a fair bet that similar accountability issues will arise in the CIA’s Predator operations in the ongoing war on terror.

Shooting Down Civilians

Toward the end of 1994, President Bill Clinton approved a project — buttressed by interagency recommendations and duly diligent Department of Justice memoranda — to halt or hinder airborne shipments of drugs from Peru by means of a common effort between the CIA and Peruvian authorities. Agency flights would identify traffickers and call in the Peruvian air force, which would either force the planes to land or shoot them down.

This Air Bridge Denial Program continued until April 20, 2001, when a CIA flight summoned the Peruvian air force to tail a plane that actually contained an American family, the Bowers, who were returning from vacation to their Baptist mission in the Andes. The CIA contract operators who had identified the plane as a possible target began to doubt their original suspicions, but their calls to Peruvian authorities went unheeded. After making little effort to communicate with the missionaries — a radio message beamed on a frequency the plane was not monitoring — the Peruvians shot at the plane, killing wife Veronica and infant daughter Charity, and wounding pilot Kevin Donaldson. Missionary husband Jim Bowers and his seven-year old son Cory barely survived the crash landing of the aircraft. George J. Tenet, CIA director at the time, gives this moment the “sad distinction” of being “my worst day as DCI before 9/11.”

The key facts became known within 10 days of the tragedy. In its scramble to defend themselves, the CIA and the U.S. government released some data but also sought to protect the larger initiative from public scrutiny. Peruvians had done the shooting, but the CIA aircrew had not followed their own standard procedures for identifying the aircraft tail number. Within a month it became known that at the outset of the program, State Department lawyers had recommended against participating in a program that would involve shooting down civilian aircraft. By July 2001, a leaked State Department internal investigation showed that joint training between the CIA and Peruvians had been spotty, embassy oversight lacking, and was conducted by CIA contract employees who knew little Spanish. All this and more was confirmed by an October 2001 report from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which additionally revealed that a similar rush to shoot had occurred in 1997, but got no attention because that time real drug traffickers were involved.

The Cover-Up

The CIA responded to these investigations by burying it all as deeply as possible. The government paid $8 million to settle claims filed by the Bowers family and pilot Donaldson. The Justice Department did conduct a criminal inquiry but in 2005 decided against bringing any charges. Not until August 2008 did CIA inspector general John Helgerson complete his report on the Peruvian aerial incident. That it required seven years to complete this investigation already draws suspicion. According to Hoekstra, the CIA engaged in “repeated failure to follow procedures that resulted in loss of life; false or misleading statements to Congress by CIA officials up to and including former Director George Tenet; and potential obstruction of justice by CIA employees with respect to a Department of Justice criminal investigation.”

Helgerson’s report, which Hoekstra cited, additionally found that no one involved in modifying the presidentially mandated intercept procedures had had any authority to do so; that within hours of the attack CIA officers had begun falsely saying that the shoot-down was a one-time error in a well-run program; and that the agency had not met legal obligations to keep the NSC and Congress fully informed. This included suppressing adverse results of internal inquiries and ignoring a direct question from National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Only after Hoekstra made an issue of the Helgerson report did CIA director Michael V. Hayden review it and decide to convene an accountability board. That board decided on minor sanctions for 16 individuals — one, for example, received a reprimand letter for his file that would be removed after a year. The individuals involved included the CIA counternarcotics chief, its chief of station in Lima, and the base chief of the facility dispatching the spotter planes.

Lax accountability for CIA operations is not surprising but remains highly disturbing. In the Peruvian case, after nine years only a few mild slaps on the wrist were administered. Today’s CIA Predator attack program, like the Peruvian project, involves remote target identification, instant attack, and high secrecy. The criteria for selecting prospective victims are supposed to be very tightly drawn — but that was supposed to be true in Peru also — and the latest palaver, after the Fort Hood murders and the concern over the American Muslim imam Anwar al-Awlaki, is that American citizens may be targeted too.

The CIA as judge, jury, and executioner? Apart from the unintended consequences of this program on American-Pakistani relations, it’s only a matter of time before Congress and the American people apply the lessons of Peru to the CIA’s Predator drones.

John Prados is a senior fellow of the National Security Archive in Washington, DC and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. His latest book is William Colby and the CIA: The Secret Wars of a Controversial Spymaster (University Press of Kansas).

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