WASHINGTON — President Bush is expected to approve the resumption of a program
to force down or shoot down airplanes suspected of ferrying drugs in Latin America,
a year after the program was halted by the mistaken downing of a plane carrying
American missionaries in Peru, American officials say.
Once the president gives final approval, the State Department would take over
the program from the Central Intelligence Agency. American officials said air
interdiction operations could begin in Colombia as early as this fall and would
likely be expanded to Peru later. The Pentagon would support the program as well,
providing intelligence about suspected drug flights gathered from ground-based
radars and from other sources, officials said.
The program calls for the United States to identify and locate suspected drug
planes and for Colombian and Peruvian air force planes to shoot them down if they
do not respond to calls to land. American officials said the governments of both
countries had expressed support for restarting the operation.
The program's many critics had assumed that the mistaken downing of the missionaries'
plane, in which two Americans were killed, would make it impossible for the White
House to start it up again. But the plans for resumption began months ago, and
in recent weeks, Colombia's incoming president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, visited Washington
to urge an aggressive American role in stemming drug traffic from Latin America.
The decision to shift the management of the program to the State Department
came after the C.I.A. director, George J. Tenet, made it clear that his agency
no longer wanted any part of the operation, officials said. Since the plane's
downing, Congress has placed restrictions on the C.I.A.'s involvement, officials
The C.I.A. said last year that an Alabama-based contractor, Aviation Development
Corp., ran the program on its behalf. But Aviation Development was actually a
C.I.A. front company, and public scrutiny of the operation after the downing prompted
the C.I.A. to dissolve it, officials familiar with the program said. Alabama state
records show that Aviation Development was dissolved in January.
But unlike Mr. Tenet, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has expressed strong
support for resuming the air interdiction operations through the State Department,
and he has repeatedly inquired about the progress of the department's work on
the program, officials said.
Although Mr. Bush has not given final approval, the administration is already
far along in its preparations for resuming the air interdiction program, several
officials said. The Cessna Citation surveillance jets that the C.I.A. had operated
in the program have been upgraded and transferred to the State Department, officials
said. Colombian air force pilots have just completed flight training on the Citation
jets in the United States and are scheduled to begin more advanced training as
early as August in how to perform the complex interdiction missions.
In April, the State Department awarded a contract to a Maryland-based aviation
company, Arinc Inc., to help train Colombian and Peruvian pilots and manage the
operation, officials said. A spokeswoman for Arinc confirmed that the company
had received the contract.
Arinc has tried to hire back many of the same workers who were involved with
the program when it was run by the C.I.A. But some have refused, at least in part
because they do not believe that the State Department is allotting enough time
for training, according to people familiar with the program. Other American officials
stressed, however, that the State Department plans to impose rigorous training
One of the biggest changes under the new plan is that the Citation surveillance
aircraft, previously flown by C.I.A. contractor crews, would be flown by Colombian
and Peruvian pilots, officials said. Arinc would have one bilingual observer on
each surveillance plane to offer recommendations. But the final decision on whether
to direct fighter planes to fire on suspect aircraft would be with the Peruvian
and Colombian pilots.
The United States would still provide the crucial intelligence for the missions,
however, through an organization called the Joint Interagency Task Force-East.
The task force, which is based in Key West, Fla., and is part of the military's
Southern Command, would provide radar and other information to help Peru and Colombia
know when to start their interceptor missions.
The administration suspended the air interdiction program immediately after
a Peruvian air force interceptor jet shot down the missionaries' plane in Peru
on April 20, 2001. Veronica Bowers, a missionary, and her 7-month-old daughter,
Charity, were killed. Her husband, James, and their son, Cory, survived. The pilot
of the small plane, Kevin Donaldson, was able to crash-land it along the Amazon
River despite his wounds from the attack. The Bush administration has asked Congress
to approve an $8 million compensation payment to the survivors of the attack,
but officials said a final settlement was still pending.
The air interdiction program, first begun during the Clinton administration
in 1995, was designed to halt the shipment of semirefined cocaine from Peru to
Colombia, where it was processed and then shipped to the United States.
In Peru, the American-piloted Citation jets helped guide Peruvian fighter
jets to suspected drug flights, often after receiving intelligence from an interagency
task force based in Key West. The final decision on whether to fire on the suspected
aircraft was left to the Peruvians, but the American and Peruvian governments
worked out specific procedures expressly to protect innocent planes from attack.
The air interdiction program in Peru quickly had a major effect on drug flights.
Between 1995 and 2001, the Peruvian air force shot down or forced down at least
38 aircraft involved in drug trafficking and seized another dozen on the ground.
Eventually, drug traffickers began switching to ground or river transportation,
and by the time the missionary plane was shot down, United States officials said,
there were few drug flights still operating.
American officials say there is evidence of increased drug-related air traffic
in Colombia since the interdiction operation was suspended, but they have only
limited information about the volume of drug flights out of Peru. Some drug flights
are now trying to skirt the Peru-Colombia border by flying over Brazil, but the
administration has not asked Brazil to get involved in an expanded air interdiction
program, officials said.
The State Department office that conducted the inquiry into the downing last
year would be in charge of the new interdiction program. The State Department's
August 2001 report on the incident concluded that the program had lacked adequate
oversight, that over time too many informal shortcuts had crept into mission procedures,
and that a language barrier had made it difficult for the C.I.A. contractors to
have much influence over the Peruvian fighter pilots.
Officials say that before President Bush could officially sign off on the
program, he would have to notify Congress that the administration is confident
of adequate training effective safety procedures. The State Department and its
contractor are moving ahead with training now so they could assure Congress about
the program soon after the president formally notifies legislators, expected to
be in the fall.
Since Congress imposed stricter standards on any resumption of operations
in Peru, the administration may express readiness to resume air operations in
Colombia first, and Peru sometime later.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company