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THE NATION

Report says CIA lied in shooting

The agency covered up details of the 2001 downing of a plane that killed two, an internal inquiry says.

November 21, 2008|Greg Miller | Miller is a writer in our Washington bureau.

WASHINGTON — An internal investigation by the CIA found that agency officials engaged in a cover-up to hide agency negligence in the downing of a private airplane over Peru in 2001 as part of a mistaken attack on an aircraft suspected of carrying illegal narcotics.

Excerpts of an internal CIA report released Thursday accuse agency officials of lying to members of Congress and withholding crucial information from criminal investigators and senior Bush administration officials.

The disclosure could lead to the reopening of a probe into whether agency officials committed crimes in the attack on the aircraft, which was transporting American missionaries, and then covering it up.

The attack killed Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter and injured three others, including Bowers' husband and young son. It was carried out by a Peruvian warplane working with CIA surveillance craft.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, described the revelations as "a dark stain" on the CIA and called for information to be shared with the Justice Department to determine whether reopening the investigation is warranted.

"To say these deaths did not have to happen is more than an understatement," said Hoekstra, who added that the agency's inspector general had uncovered "continuous efforts to cover the matter up and potentially block criminal investigation."

The missionary family came from Hoekstra's district. The congressman's office released portions of the report and sent a letter to CIA Inspector General John L. Helgerson requesting that other portions also be declassified.

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano said that CIA Director Michael V. Hayden "recognized the seriousness of the matter" after the report was submitted in August, and that the document had been turned over to the Justice Department. In 2005, the department closed its investigation into the matter without any prosecutions.

The agency's internal review "is still open" and Hayden has not made any decisions about internal disciplinary measures, Gimigliano said, adding that Hayden "has sought input from a cleared outside expert, one who would know the complex issues involved in an air interdiction program."

The report concludes that agency officials repeatedly violated rules of engagement that were designed to prevent potentially fatal mishaps in the drug interdiction program, which was launched in 1994 by the Clinton administration.

"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, and without being given time to respond," the report said.

The report was the culmination of a long-running internal probe of the shooting of the Bowerses' aircraft, a small floatplane owned by the Assn. of Baptists for World Evangelism. The plane was carrying the family members from Brazil to their home base in Iquitos, Peru.

The inspector general found that "within hours, CIA officers began to characterize the shoot-down as a one-time mistake in an otherwise well-run program. In fact, this was not the case."

Over time, the report said, agency officials told lawmakers and other officials that the program complied with the laws and policies governing it, despite evidence that there had been repeated violations. The program involved the use of U.S.-owned and CIA-operated surveillance aircraft to identify suspected drug flights and provide the information to the Peruvian air force, which was authorized to shoot them down.

"The agency denied Congress, the [National Security Council] and the Department of Justice access to these findings," the report said. Further, the document said that senior agency managers withheld information from top Bush administration officials, including then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

In 2001, the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that inadequate planning and bad judgment led to the mistaken shoot-down, and recommended that the agency be removed from the business of spotting possible drug-runners along Peru's border. The program was suspended after the April 20, 2001, incident.

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greg.miller@latimes.com

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