November 27, 2008
It must be the worst nightmare of every CIA director — the agency ignores its own rules and regulations and kills innocent Americans, and then the people in charge of the operation lie to Congress and cover up what happened.
The nightmare has apparently come to life and it became public today when Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) announced that a report by the CIA’s own inspector general found that agency officers apparently ignored standing rules and regulations governing when they could shoot at aircraft in the drug war in Latin America. The lapses led to the death of at least 10 innocent civilians, Hoekstra said, including two Americans, Veronica “Roni” Bowers and her daughter, Charity, in April 2001. They were missionaries in Peru heading home when the CIA ordered a Peruvian Air Force jet to shoot down their plane. The shoot down was part of a joint U.S.-Peruvian anti-drug program that began in the mid-1990s. CIA officers worked with Peruvian pilots to spot planes believed to be carrying illegal drugs.
“It is a blot, a dark stain, a sad day for CIA,” Hoekstra told reporters this morning. “The CIA knew about repeated serious issues with this program, but took no corrective actions, which could have prevented this needless tragedy. Making matters worse, the inspector general found continuous efforts to cover the matter up and potentially block criminal investigation.
While Hoekstra has taken a keen interest in the case from the beginning, since both victims were from Michigan, he clearly sees the case as having much wider significance than a single tragic event.
“This issue goes to the heart of the American people’s ability to trust the CIA,” said Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. “Americans deserve to know that agencies given the power to operate on their behalf aren’t abusing that power or their trust.”
Hoekstra based his harsh criticisms on findings in a voluminous and classified report by the agency’s inspector general: “Procedures Used in the Narcotics Airbridge Denial Program in Peru, 1995-2001.” The report was completed late this summer and Hoekstra’s committee received its copy around the time that Congress recessed for the elections, the first week of October, he said.
In an Oct. 6 letter to CIA Director Mike Hayden, Hoekstra cited “repeated failures 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 officials with respect to a Department of Justice criminal investigation.”
A former senior CIA officer familiar with the anti-drug program was skeptical of Hoekstra’s conclusions. “The Airbridge Denial Program was ruthlessly successful for years, stopping Peruvian cocaine base from the Upper Huallaga Valley up into Colombia from being refined. When the two Americans were shot down in their private plane, my understanding was it was a clear error, committed by the Peruvian pilots. They did not follow all the procedures,” the retired official said. “To say the agency was ‘responsible’ is a stretch. The procedures were written by us and overseen by us, so I guess to that extent the agency was responsible.”
Hoekstra told reporters he will press for extended hearings by the intelligence committee, headed by Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas). The Republican lawmaker also wants the Justice Department to take a close look at whether it needs to reopen the criminal investigation into the case. No one was charged as a result of an earlier investigation and Hoekstra made it clear he thinks the Justice Department may not have had access to all the relevant facts when it first investigated the case.
I asked Hoekstra if he believed there are still fundamental problems with the CIA’s culture today and if he believed the Director of National Intelligence — which did not exist at the time of the shootdown — had made improvements to CIA and the intelligence community’s culture. “I think the DNI is doing everything he can to strengthen his relationship with Congress,” he said.
In addition to his press conference, Hoekstra wrote a letter today to the CIA Inspector General, John Helgerson, asking him to declassify as much of his report as possible. In a clear shot across the CIA’s bow, Hoekstra reminded Helgerson that information must not be classified to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error” or to “prevent embarrassment to a person, organization or agency…”
Hoekstra ended his letter to Hayden with a clear warning, and a promise: “I will not let this matter rest.”