Nearly nine years ago, a Peruvian air force fighter guided by CIA employees in a spotter plane blew a civilian aircraft out of the sky over the Amazon, thinking it was shooting down drug smugglers. But the plane was not carrying drug smugglers; it was carrying American missionaries Jim and Veronica Bowers, their two children, and a civilian pilot. Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter were killed.
The ensuing uproar led to the ending of the US-sponsored program of shooting down suspected drug smuggling planes and heated calls from Congress to get to the bottom of the affair. That didn't happen. Instead, the CIA stonewalled Congress, promising an internal investigation.
This week, that investigation finally concluded. As ABC News reported, the investigation found that CIA operatives and Peruvian officials failed to follow their strict rules of engagement. The pilots failed to identify the plane by its tail number and did not order the plane to land. Tapes of the incident show the CIA spotters growing doubtful at the last moment that their target actually was a drug plane, but failing to act on their doubts in time to prevent the Peruvian fighter jet from firing on the plane.
On Wednesday, the CIA announced that its investigation had concluded that 16 CIA employees should be disciplined, including the CIA agent then in charge of counternarcotics. But many of those employees no longer work for the CIA, and for some who still do, the discipline consists of nothing more than a letter of reprimand inserted in their personnel files.
That was too much for Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee. The Bowers were his constituents, and from the beginning, Hoekstra had demanded answers about what happened over the Amazon that day and who was responsible.
"If there's ever an example of justice delayed, justice denied, this is it," Hoekstra told ABC. "The [intelligence] community's performance in terms of accountability has been unacceptable. These were Americans that were killed with the help of their government, the community covered it up, they delayed investigating."
While the Intelligence Committee held hearings on the incident, it didn't get very far. The State Department reported in 2001 that the shoot-downs occurred only after "exhausting international procedures for interception." The Department of Justice declined to prosecute anyone in 2005.
Veronica Bowers and daughter Charity, in their family's houseboat on the Amazon (photo by Joe Sherman, via flickr.com)
Then the CIA Office of the Inspector General delivered its report, "Procedures Used in Narcotics Airbridge Denial in Peru, 1995-2001
," in 2008, seven years after the fact. That report found that at least 15 planes were shot down under the Narcotics Airbridge Denial Program beginning in 1995 and that in most of the downings, pilots fired on aircraft "without being properly identified, without being given the required warnings to land, and without being given time to respond to such warnings as were given to land." (Many of those planes crashed in the jungle and have never been reached, leaving open the question of whether they were carrying drugs.) The report also said that the CIA withheld from the National Security Council, Congress, and the Justice Department the results of investigations that showed continuing and serious violations of procedures designed to prevent the shooting down of innocent aircraft.
When the Inspector General handed that report over to then CIA director Michael Hayden, he assembled an Agency Accountability Board, which insisted it found no evidence of a cover-up, that "reasonable suspicion" was established in every shoot-down except that of the Bowers' plane, and that no CIA officer acted inappropriately. Instead, 16 people were to be sanctioned for "shortcomings in reporting and supervision."
Speaking to Michigan's WOOD-TV Wednesday evening, Hoekstra was outraged. "This is one where the bureaucracy protected itself. Immediately after the shooting in 2001, Congress was misled. Some would say the CIA lied to us about exactly what happened, then dragged this out for years," he said.
"They were brutally murdered, and the US government was complicit in making that happen," Hoekstra continued. "The CIA was reckless, they made serious mistakes that resulted in the deaths of two Americans. This is also about accountability. The CIA has some of the most tremendous powers, and we need to make sure that there is accountability, that CIA operates within the boundaries we set for it, and when they don't, they are held accountable. Tragically, as we close this chapter, I don't think those things are going to happen."
"They wouldn't testify when it happened, they stonewalled this from the get-go, when Hoekstra was demanding they testify," said Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies and long-time student of US-Latin American relations. "I recall Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN) demanding to know who was in charge. Was it Southcom, was it CIA, was it the US Embassy? And all the witnesses just pointed fingers at each other. It now seems that had more to do with embarrassment than protecting national security."
When asked about what the whole affair said about CIA accountability, Tree just laughed.
Coincidentally, Hoesktra's remarks came the same day US Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the House Intelligence Committee the government has the right to kill Americans abroad if they present a direct threat to US security. "We take direct action against terrorists in the intelligence community," Blair told lawmakers at the hearing. "If that direct action -- we think that direct action will involve killing an American, we get specific permission to do that."
Blair said he made the admission to reassure Americans. "We're not careless about endangering American lives as we try to carry out the policies to protect most of the country," he said.
On Wednesday, the CIA claimed it was not careless in the killing of Veronica Bowers and her daughter, either. In a statement issued Wednesday evening, the CIA said the program to shoot down suspected drug planes had ended in 2001 and was run by a foreign government.
"CIA personnel had no authority either to direct or prohibit actions by that government. CIA officers did not shoot down any airplane. In the case of the tragic downing of April 21st, 2001, [sic] CIA personnel protested the identification of the missionary plane as a suspect drug trafficker," the statement said. (The incident actually occurred April 20, 2001.)
In fact, the shoot-down was the result of an ongoing operation in which the CIA and the Peruvian government worked as partners to blow suspected drug planes out of the sky. Video and audiotapes of the incident show the CIA employees deciding not to check the plane's tail numbers for risk it might flee, and those tapes show that the CIA employees did not express doubts about the identity of the craft until moments before it was shot down.
"This was a tragic episode that the Agency has dealt with in a professional and thorough manner," continued the statement. "Unfortunately, some have been willing to twist facts to imply otherwise. In so doing, they do a tremendous disservice to CIA officers, serving and retired, who have risked their lives for America's national security."
"One of the problems here is that these intelligence services are given a sort of thankless task of operating on the margins of our assumptions about what a society should be about," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. "This produces an environment where you get these scandalous things taking place and there is not an adequate corrective procedure, so there is no warning shot across the bow for CIA and other clandestine services. They always seem to assume they can act outside the law because their mission is so important, and one administration after another is willing to look the other way."
"This is all being done in the name of these countries doing domestic law enforcement," Tree noted. "Since we were not at war, what kind of law enforcement allows the policeman to be judge, jury, and executioner? This wasn't law enforcement -- this was extrajudicial killing."
"I don't know why we're surprised about this," said Birns. "It's almost built into the dynamics of the situation. If the government wants them to engage in irregular warfare and take risks with the rules of the game and they know that in the past they have usually been exonerated, of course they are going to bend the rules. It is disenchanting when you reflect on how many incidents there have been where the CIA has compromised itself," said Birns. "We can be outraged that the values we insist on domestically go un-honored in our international behavior, but we shouldn't be surprised because we have put such great value on achieving those policy goals."