Disturbing press reports indicate that Peru is considering re-establishing a deadly aerial interdiction effort to combat rampant illegal drug trafficking in South America.
The tragedies of its past, most notably the murder of an innocent American missionary and her 7-month-old daughter in 2001, cannot be allowed to become prologue to its future.
The program demands formal and fully transparent rules of engagement, a clear and accountable chain of command and reporting, and meticulous safeguards against mistaken identities prior to the first plane lifting off.
Had such protocols been followed since the implementation of the Airbridge Denial Program (ADBP) in 1995, Roni and Charity Bowers might still be alive. Instead, the U.S. allowed the ADBP, which was supported and monitored by the CIA, to become a rogue shoot-to-kill, ask-questions-later operation.
The lethal 2001 shootdown was no accident by any stretch of the imagination.
The Peruvian air force targeted small aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs and often shot them down over rugged and rarely traveled terrain. It was difficult to determine whether the planes were actually smuggling contraband or whether the passengers and pilots even survived.
In this case, a CIA aircraft spotted the Cessna carrying the Bowers family and initially misidentified it as a drug carrier. Agency operatives later expressed doubts concerning its identification, but it allowed the Peruvians to launch their own jet and shoot it down.
The Cessna crash-landed in a river near a remote village in the Amazon jungle, where the locals rescued the survivors who included pilot Kevin Donaldson, and Jim and his son Cory Bowers.
I learned of the story firsthand. The Bowers were constituents of Michigan’s 2nd Congressional District, which I represented at the time of the incident.
The CIA and the Peruvian air force began obfuscating the facts fast and furiously during the fallout. The CIA testified before Congress that the ADBP explicitly followed the rules of engagement and operated to the letter of the law. They were adamant that the small missionary plane ignored all adequate warnings and actually demonstrated additional suspicious behavior.
The CIA said that it rigorously monitored the program with myriad checks and balances. Actually shooting down a plane was the dramatic step of last resort, and only after suspected drug runners were warned of the consequences of failing to follow instructions.
The shootdown of the missionary plane was an “aberration.”
Slowly the real story emerged as evidence was revealed. Electronic recordings of the events became available, and it shattered the CIA and Peruvian air force’s claims. A 2010 Inspector General report accused CIA officials of “fostering an environment of negligence” and lying to Congress in nearly a dozen hearings and briefings.
I will never forget watching that video with Jim Bowers, the man who had just lost his wife and daughter. We were not witnessing a fine-tuned effort with checklists and safeguards. Much to the contrary we saw a rogue operation with few controls and operating under a startling shoot-to-kill and ask-questions-later mentality.
More frightening was the lack of data and documentation of oversight throughout its six-year history. The IG report confirmed violations of required procedures in all 15 civilian planes shot down by Peru from 1995 to 2001.
We will never know how many innocents were killed. I personally encountered one other person who contacted my office under suspicion that her husband may have been shot down in similar circumstances. But with so little documentation available we were never able to accurately determine what had occurred.
The ADBP continues to haunt me as the U.S. increasingly deploys drones to target Americans. Are the proper protocols in effect to minimize the possibility of deadly mistakes?
That question needs to be fully addressed to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that rules of engagement are explicitly spelled out, a chain of command holds officials accountable, and critical safeguards against misidentification are implemented. Manned or unmanned aircraft in interdiction efforts should be closely administered and monitored.
The U.S. and Peru must never forget the lessons of the air bridge interdiction program and the responsibility that accompanies a shoot-to-kill order. Even under the best and most detailed operations, tragic “aberrations” can happen.
Pete Hoekstra represented Michigan for 18 years in Congress as chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee and as a leading bipartisan voice on policy and oversight of national security, education, labor, and economic issues. He currently serves as the Shillman senior fellow at the Investigative Project on Terrorism. For more of Pete Hoekstra's reports, Go Here Now.
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