WASHINGTON The Bush administration will revive a policy to help Peru and Colombia shoot down suspected narcotics planes within six months but is edging the CIA out of involvement.
The program was suspended a year ago after a CIA spotter aircraft helped Peruvian warplanes down a U.S. missionary plane over the Amazon River, killing an American mother and her infant.
Renewal needs final White House approval, and Congress must be notified formally.
But a senior State Department official this week said U.S. officials are designing "a very robust oversight program" to avert new tragedies after the program is renewed.
He said officials are addressing shortcomings, including language and chain-of-command problems, that led Peruvian attack aircraft on April 20, 2001, to shoot down a single-engine U.S. float plane an action taken without visually signaling to the American pilot, Kevin Donaldson, that his plane was considered suspicious.
The accident prompted some U.S. legislators to demand that the U.S.-sponsored program be scrapped entirely. But heavy coca production in Peru and Colombia has led other legislators to say the shoot-down policy should be revived with tighter safeguards.
The program began in 1994 and led Peru, and to a lesser extent Colombia, to shoot down or force down dozens of planes suspected of carrying narcotics.
In the past, CIA contract employees flew radar-equipped spotter aircraft to assist in identifying and attacking small planes suspected of carrying cocaine.
"They are not going to fly the planes," the State Department official said of the CIA. "They are not going to run the planes. They are not going to maintain the planes."
All U.S. employees and foreigners will be bilingual, he said, avoiding communication failures that contributed to the shoot-down.
The Bush administration no longer will use U.S. government aircraft to tail suspicious planes.
Instead, CIA-owned aircraft will be handed to Peru and Colombia, the official said. A U.S. official will ride aboard those planes.
"If they implement the same kind of guidelines but ensure that they work, then it's possible that our pilots would be safe," said Donald Davis, staff counsel for the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism.
But the pilot, Kevin Donaldson, whose legs were shot up in the attack, and who continues to live in the jungles near Iquitos, is scared to return to the Peruvian skies.
"Kevin's preference is that they not have a shoot-down policy, period," Davis said. "He doesn't want to fly in Peru."
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