Peruvian Days

August 5, 2016–In a virtually unnoticed exchange in February 2010, Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra called the CIA to task for its incredibly ham-fisted handling of the April 20, 2001 incident in which American missionaries were killed by the Peruvian air force, in collaboration with a CIA air crew, working as part of a joint program to interdict drug trafficking. 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 not only to the continuing effort to bring accountability to CIA operations, but also particularly because in the war on terror, the CIA’s Predator attack program is now resorting to similarly low standards of identification and evidence in selecting its targets. It’s a fair bet that accountability issues will arise in the Predator operation, and the Peruvian incident offers stark illustration of how the agency treats these kinds of things.

In brief background, toward the end of 1994 President William J. 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. Called the Air Bridge Denial Program, this project continued until April 20, 2001, when a CIA flight summoned the Peruvian air force to tail a plane which actually contained an American Baptist family, the Bowers, who were returning from vacation to their 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.” [At the Center of the Storm, p. 49]

The key facts became known within ten days of the tragedy. In its hustle to defend itself the CIA revealed some, and the U.S. government released other data in protecting the larger initiative. That Peruvians had done the shooting, that the CIA aircrew had not followed their own standard procedures for identifying the aircraft tail number, but that they recanted their initial suspicions and had tried to call off the attack—and that all of this was on tape—were revealed. 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 results of a State Department internal investigation had leaked and showed that joint training between the CIA and Peruvians had been spotty, embassy oversight lacking, that cautionary procedures had gone by the boards while the CIA contract employees 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 already occurred, in 1997, but got no attention because that time real drug traffickers were involved.

What did the CIA do? Bury all of this as deeply as possible. The government paid $8 million to settle 2002 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. My book Safe for Democracy contains numerous examples of similar sorts of shenanigans.

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 Representative 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.” [Letter, Rep. Hoekstra-Director Michael V. Hayden, October 6, 2008]

Hoekstra drew these conclusions from Helgerson’s report, which 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 shootdown 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, including suppressing adverse results of internal inquiries and ignoring a direct question from national security adviser Condolezza Rice.

It was only after Representative 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 upon minor sanctions for sixteen individuals—ABC reporters Matthew Cole and Brian Ross learned that one, for example, received a reprimand letter for his file that would be removed after a year. The individuals involved included the CIA counter-narcotics chief, its chief of station in Lima, and the base chief of the facility dispatching the spotter planes.

Even more disturbing, Director Hayden initiated a CIA internal investigation of the Inspector General. Thus, some minor slaps on the wrist for field officers are combined with a major pushback at an agency watchdog.

Lax accountability for CIA operations is not surprising but remains highly problematic. 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 American citizens may be targeted. The CIA as judge, jury, and executioner? Apart from the unintended consequences of this program on American-Pakistani relations, it can only be a matter of time until an accountability moment falls from the CIA’s Predator drones.

The brouhaha over the Senate torture report demonstrates an agency virtually breaking loose from supervision. This situation is not acceptable for a security agency responsible to citizens in a democracy.