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
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
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]
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.