Anti-drug program's future in doubt after plane shot down

Wednesday, April 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A U.S.-Peruvian drug interdiction program highly touted for its effectiveness must be fixed to prevent a repeat of the downing of a missionary plane in which two Americans were killed, lawmakers say.

``Anytime you have a catastrophe like that we should very intensely review procedures and find out how we can assure all involved that this kind of mistake doesn't happen again,'' Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said of Friday's incident over the Amazon River. ``But we've got to stay mindful that we're at war here.''

The program involves CIA workers who conduct airborne surveillance over drug-growing areas of Peru and point out potential drug-trafficking planes to Peruvian air force authorities. Peruvian officials then decide whether to simply check out the planes, force them to land or shoot them down.

A U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday night that the CIA crew was upset when it became clear the Peruvians were set to shoot down the plane despite the Americans' pleas that they first determine whether the plane was trafficking drugs.

Crew members contacted their base in Peru and told of their uneasiness about what was going on, but they had no authority to tell the Peruvians what to do, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The downing occurred at most two minutes later.

The Washington Post, in Wednesday's editions, said an audiotape aboard the U.S. surveillance plane shows CIA officers expressing doubts that the civilian aircraft it had been tracking was smuggling drugs, 20 minutes before it was shot down.

But the CIA crew didn't vigorously protest until the Peruvian jet began firing on the plane because they thought it was simply flying near it to determine the plane's registration number. The tape also makes clear that the CIA crew members had difficulty communicating with the Peruvian liaison on the plane because they didn't speak Spanish well enough, the Post said.

During a secret Senate Intelligence Committee briefing Tuesday on the downing of the plane, lawmakers heard from CIA Director George Tenet about audio and videotapes of the incident but did not hear them, and the CIA is working on a transcript, said Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the committee's top Democrat.

``Apparently the voice data is difficult, because first, you have several people talking in two languages over a lot of noise in the aircraft,'' Graham said, adding that it's taking time ``to carefully listen to all of that and try to develop a responsible transcript of what actually was said.''

Administration officials and lawmakers have credited the U.S.-Peruvian anti-drug program with a substantial decrease in Peru's coca cultivation.

But the Intelligence Committee chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby, cast doubt on the program's future given the mistaken downing of the pontoon plane that killed missionary Veronica ``Roni'' Bowers, 35, and her adopted 7-month-old daughter, Charity.

Bowers' husband, Jim, and their 6-year-old son, Cory, survived, as did pilot Kevin Donaldson, who was wounded and has undergone surgery on both legs.

``When you lose a young woman and her child because of a lack of communication, I believe, among other things, it's just too much,'' said Shelby, R-Ala., whose suggestions of other possible reasons for the error included ``someone that was perhaps too eager to take down a plane.''

However, Graham said too much remains unknown to make any definitive decisions.

Tenet said his investigation should be done within 48 hours, Shelby said, adding that the U.S. crew has not yet been debriefed and he wants to hear the Peruvians' side.

Shelby, like Bush administration officials, blamed the mistake in part on Peruvians improperly ``accelerating'' procedures, not taking all the required steps _ such as checking the plane's registration number and signaling it to land _ before shooting the plane down.

The Peruvians say they took all necessary steps, but the plane's occupants failed to respond to radio messages.

President Bush has suspended the program pending an investigation.

But the U.S. surveillance flights could resume in a few weeks to prevent drug traffickers from taking advantage of a lull in enforcement, said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.