Shedding light on a dark war

Congress, others tire of anti-drug operations' secrecy




By Tod Robberson / The Dallas Morning News


PANAMA CITY - A U.S. surveillance plane crashes in a Colombian combat zone,

killing all aboard. A private U.S. military contractor sends Americans into

combat against rebels who have downed a police helicopter. A civilian

aircraft flown by missionaries is shot out of the skies after being tracked

by a CIA-contracted aircraft over Peru.


These are the types of U.S. operations - all conducted under the cloak of

secrecy and all in the name of fighting drug traffickers - that

inadvertently have come under public scrutiny during the past two years.


Watchdog groups and members of Congress are demanding answers about what

they say is an increasingly secret drug war that U.S. government personnel

and private U.S. contractors are waging in and around Colombia, using $1.3

billion in taxpayer funds.


In Washington on Tuesday, conservative and liberal members of Congress

demanded that the federal government explain its need for so many secret

operations related to the anti-drug mission in the Andean region. And if

answers are not forthcoming, some members of Congress warned, future funding

might not be forthcoming either.


"The key word here is accountability," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who

has introduced a bill to curtail the use of private contractors in policing

and military-related missions in the Andean region. "If this is a valid

mission that we're on ... then it seems to me that to have it shrouded in

secrecy and keeping it more than at arm's length from the public ... is a

very dangerous process."


U.S. officials say that in a nefarious zone where drug traffickers regularly

mingle with leftist guerrillas, kidnapping rings, paramilitary militias and

international money launderers, secret operations play a crucial role in

America's overall security strategy for the Andean region.


Many operations must be kept secret because of the dangers American

personnel regularly are exposed to, officials say. Would-be kidnappers and

leftist guerrillas can be found barely a 20-minute drive from the Colombian

capital or in the jungles of northern Ecuador, where the United States is

outfitting and expanding an air base for anti-drug missions.


To make public the activities of private defense contractors or intelligence

personnel involved in these missions would effectively make it impossible

for them to do their jobs, officials say.


But according to groups that monitor such activities, an increase in "black

ops" means U.S. taxpayer dollars are going to fight a covert war whose

expenses are not submitted for public scrutiny. Little will be known, and

few explanations will be provided to inform the American public about their

government's activities.


Revived attention



The issue arose anew April 20 after a U.S. anti-drug aircraft, operated by a

private company reportedly under CIA contract, tracked a single-engine

civilian plane over the skies of Peru. A Peruvian military officer on board

the counternarcotics aircraft called in a jet fighter and, in accordance

with a long-standing policy of shooting down aircraft suspected of carrying

drugs, ordered the civilian plane destroyed.


Instead of carrying drugs, the plane turned out to be transporting U.S.

missionaries. A mother and her infant daughter were killed.


"The history of these black ops doesn't inspire confidence," said Andrew

Miller, who monitors human rights issues in Latin America for Amnesty

International. "If overtly they're shooting down civilian planes, it makes

you wonder what's being done covertly."


Of the $1.3 billion in U.S. anti-drug and military aid now pouring into the

Andean region, $55.3 million is devoted to classified, intelligence-related

activities that are being hidden from public view, according to the

Washington-based Center for International Policy.


Those activities include CIA-run aerial-surveillance missions to track drug

traffickers and a sophisticated network of radio intercepts that allow the

National Security Agency to monitor guerrilla communications in Colombia,

according to U.S. government sources.


Missions' key role



There are times when those secret operations serve an important security

role, such as when four American birdwatchers were kidnapped by Colombian

rebels in 1998. Radio intercepts monitored by U.S. intelligence personnel

enabled the government to hone in on the precise location of the kidnappers,

who received a stern warning to release their captives without delay. The

birdwatchers were released in a matter of days.


Last year, secret U.S. satellite intelligence enabled authorities to track a

major drug shipment from Panama to the coastal waters of Ecuador and then to

the northern Chilean port of Arica. Without the help of U.S. intelligence,

Chilean authorities said, authorities would never have found the 9.7 tons of

cocaine hidden in one of the ship's cargo cranes, leading to the

third-largest cocaine seizure in history.


For some of its most important missions, Ms. Schakowsky complained, the

United States is relying more and more on private contractors who employ

retired military officers and U.S. Army Special Forces members to conduct

combat-related tasks that the military is barred by law from carrying out.


Employees for one such contractor, DynCorp of northern Virginia, say they

regularly are exposed to combat situations in Colombia while conducting

missions such as aerial spraying of drug crops or maintaining aircraft in

areas where guerrilla attacks occur.


In February, guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia shot

down a Colombian police helicopter during a U.S.-supported spraying mission

in southern Caqueta province. In order to rescue the helicopter pilot and

crew members, DynCorp ordered its combat-trained personnel to assist.


"The FARC were maybe 100 or 200 yards away," the pilot, Colombian police

Capt. Giancarlo Cotrino, told a Bogotá newspaper after his rescue. "We were

in combat for seven or eight minutes. One of my crew had a grenade launcher

and I had my pistol. We were under heavy gunfire up until the [DynCorp]

search-and-rescue helicopter landed behind us."


Limits of the law



U.S. law allows up to 500 U.S. military personnel and 300 civilian contract

personnel to be deployed in Colombia at any given time. They provide

counterinsurgency instruction, maintain listening outposts, or monitor air

traffic from any of five U.S.-built rural radar stations, among various

other tasks.


Military personnel also are deployed in Peru at three U.S.-built radar

stations, in addition to hundreds of troops helping to refurbish an air base

in Manta, Ecuador, and to construct several military bases in Bolivia. The

United States also runs AWACS military surveillance flights from the

Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curacao. No information is available about

the number of CIA and other intelligence personnel operating in the region.


"If this is a legitimate U.S. mission, we ought to know exactly what it is,

and we can't seem to find out," Ms. Schakowsky said in a phone interview.

"What happens if there is a ground skirmish and there are casualties? What

is the obligation of the United States toward these [privately contracted]



Another crash



Similar questions arose in 1999, when a U.S. de Havilland RC-7

reconnaissance plane crashed in a southern Colombia combat zone, killing all

five U.S. service personnel and two Colombian military officers on board. A

subsequent investigation blamed the crash on pilot error, but little else

was revealed publicly about the nature of the mission.


"We're putting our people in combat situations or areas that are certainly

contested by illegal armed groups. In other areas, we're just putting them

where a lot of bad guys are - without any real transparency over how it's

going," said Adam Isaacson, a senior associate at the Center for

International Policy in Washington.


"In Colombia's case, it's our proximity relative to a civil war that we

swear up and down that we don't want to get ourselves involved in. But it

could happen anyway," Mr. Isaacson said. "Again, there's so little scrutiny,

and anyone who tries to do any scrutiny runs up against so many brick walls

that it's hard to know how close we are to this conflict right now."


The government sometimes imposes strict rules of secrecy even when missions

are not technically classified as secret. Last year, Alex B. Piñero, a

retired U.S. Special Forces medic who once flew search-and-rescue missions

for DynCorp, posted his resume on the Internet in hopes of finding another



When The Dallas Morning News published a story mentioning Mr. Piñero's

credentials and his current work in Colombia, the State Department

immediately revoked his security clearance. The same day, DynCorp notified

him that his contract in Colombia was canceled, Mr. Piñero said. A DynCorp

corporate attorney declined to comment.