Drug Policy

If We Make Sure We're Not Killing Innocent People, We Might Not Get to Kill Anyone at All

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In April 2001, the Peruvian Air Force, working with the CIA, shot down a plane carrying two American missionaries and their children after mistaking them for cocaine traffickers. Veronica Bowers and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, were killed by machine gun rounds, while her husband, Jim; their 6-year-old son, Cory; and the pilot, Kevin Donaldson, survived both the crash and the additional rounds that rained down on them as they struggled to stay afloat in the Amazon River amid flaming wreckage. On Wednesday, nearly nine years after Veronica and Charity Bowers were murdered with U.S. assistance, the CIA announced that it had concluded its internal investigation of the incident and planned to discipline 16 employees, many of whom are no longer with the agency. ABC News reports that "one of those involved said his discipline was no more than a letter of reprimand placed in his file, which he was told would be removed in one year." Despite the culpability implied by the decision to discipline those employees, the CIA issued a statement that put all the blame on the Peruvian Air Force:

The program to deny drug traffickers an "air bridge" 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 [actually, it was April 20], 2001, CIA personnel protested the identification of the missionary plane as a suspect drug trafficker.

The 109-minute videotape of the incident, as summarized by ABC News, tells a different story (emphasis added):

A CIA spotter plane saw the Cessna in which the Bowers family was flying and alerted the Peruvian Air Force….

The CIA spotter plane, with two operatives aboard, sneaked up behind the Cessna as it flew over the Amazon.

"We are trying to remain covert at this point," one of the CIA pilots on the plane can be heard to say on the tape.

The CIA pilot describes the aircraft as a high-wing, single engine float plane, which is accurate, that it has picked up on the border between Peru and Brazil.

But the CIA personnel misidentified the craft as a drug plane. The CIA alerted the Peruvian Air Force, which scrambled an interceptor. Over the next two hours, the CIA personnel would express doubts, but would not correct their error, and would repeatedly violate what the White House believed to be strict rules of engagement.

Said former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who served in the White House at the time on the National Security Council, which created the anti-drug program, "Either the CIA spotter aircraft or the interceptor is supposed to get up close, identify the plane from the tail number, try to indicate to the plane that it should follow them to the ground."

That did not happen. Instead, the decision was made not to try to identify the tail number, because it might allow the plane to escape.

"You know, we can go up attempt the tail number," says a CIA operative on the tape. "The problem with that is that if he is dirty and he detect us, he makes a right turn immediately and we can't chase him."

When the Peruvian Air Force jet arrived it issued a warning to the target plane, saying, "We will shoot you down." The warning was in Spanish, which the Bowers and their pilot could understand, but it was on the wrong frequency.

The CIA pilots begin to have doubts. "This guy doesn't, doesn't fit the profile," says one. But nothing was done to pull the plane back.

The CIA then asks a Peruvian Air Force liaison, "Are you sure is bandito? Are you sure?"

"Yes, okay," says the Peruvian.

"If you're sure," responds the CIA operative. Then more serious doubts were quietly whispered.

"That is bullshit," says one CIA operative. "I think we're making a mistake."

"I agree with you," says the other operative.

A minute and a half later the gunships opened fire and the Bowers' pilot, Donaldson, screamed in Spanish for the jet to stop.

"They're killing me. They're killing us," yells Donaldson on the tape.

"Tell him to terminate," says one of the CIA operative to the Peruvian liaison. "No. Don't Shoot. No more, no mas."

The Peruvian liaison starts yelling at the pilot, "Stop! No mas, no mas, Tucan no more."

"God," says one of the CIA pilots.

By then the damage was done. Trailing black smoke, it headed for a river to land, with Veronica Bowers and her daughter Charity already dead from bullet wounds and the pilot wounded in both legs.

Jim Bowers, his son Cory and Kevin Donaldson survived. But for almost nine years, the CIA misled Congress, the White House and the dead woman's parents about how and why the agency defied the rules established to make sure innocent people were not killed.

The CIA blames the Peruvians, even though the attack was instigated by the agency's spotters as part of a program endorsed, facilitated, and in a sense demanded by the U.S. government, which enlists nations throughout the world in its fight to prevent Americans from consuming politically incorrect intoxicants. In a column right after the incident, I argued that "accidents" like this were inevitable once Congress authorized drug warriors to shoot down civilian planes and that the use of deadly force was in any case unjustified in this context, where the "crime" the government is trying to prevent is nothing more than the delivery of a product by willing sellers to eager buyers.

[via the Drug War Chronicle]