November 20, 2008 / 11:20 PM / 11 years ago

CIA faulted in shooting down of missionary plane

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The CIA obstructed inquiries into its role in the shooting down of an aircraft carrying a family of U.S. missionaries in Peru in 2001, the agency’s inspector general has concluded.

The inspector-general’s report said a CIA-backed program in Peru targeting drug runners was so poorly run that many suspect aircraft were shot down by Peruvian air force jets without proper checks being made first.

Unclassified portions of the report were made public for the first time on Thursday by U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, who criticized the CIA for the “needless” deaths.

Central Intelligence Agency spokesman Paul Gimigliano said the agency’s director, Michael Hayden, had received the full classified report in August and passed it on to the Justice Department, which declined in 2005 to bring any prosecutions.

A small plane carrying Veronica Bowers, her husband Jim, their son Cory and infant daughter Charity was shot down by a Peruvian jet on April 20, 2001, after it was tracked by a CIA surveillance plane that suspected it was carrying drugs.

Veronica and Charity Bowers were killed, while their pilot, Kevin Donaldson, who crash-landed the bullet-riddled plane into the Amazon River, was badly injured.

Videotape later released showed confusion on the CIA surveillance plane over whether or not the missionary aircraft was running drugs. The American pilot urged a Peruvian officer on board to force it to land to make sure.

The CIA plane was taking part in a program, since ended, to prevent planes smuggling cocaine in Peru and Colombia.

PROCEDURES IGNORED

The inspector-general’s report said that in the aftermath of the 2001 incident the CIA sought to characterize it as a one-time mistake in an otherwise well-run program.

“In fact this was not the case. The routine disregard of the required intercept procedures ... led to the rapid shooting down of target aircraft without adequate safeguards to protect against the loss of innocent life,” the report said.

Peruvians and Americans involved in the program told investigators that following the proper identification procedures could have given suspect aircraft time to escape. It was also sometimes simply easier to shoot down the aircraft than to force it down, they said.

“The result was that in many cases, suspect aircraft were shot down within two to three minutes of being sighted by the Peruvian fighter — without being properly identified, without being given the required warnings to land,” the report said.

The New York Times reported in 2001 that Peru had shot down or strafed more than 30 planes since 1995.

The inspector general said the CIA found “sustained and significant” violations of procedure in its own internal investigation but had denied Congress, the National Security Council and the Justice Department access to its findings.

“Between 1995 and 2001, the agency incorrectly reported that the program complied with the laws and policies governing it,” the report said.

The CIA’s general counsel advised agency managers not to write anything down in an effort to avoid criminal charges being brought against CIA officers. The agency also ignored questions from Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, on the conduct of the program.

“This issue goes to the heart of the American people’s ability to trust the CIA,” Hoekstra said. “Americans deserve to know that agencies given the power to operate on their behalf aren’t abusing that power or their trust.”

CIA spokesman Gimigliano said director Hayden had not yet made any decisions based on the inspector-general’s recommendations but the “CIA takes very seriously questions of responsibility and accountability.”

Additional reporting by Randall Mikkelsen, editing by Anthony Boadle

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