(above) Authorities inspect the plane that was mistakenly targeted in April 2001 by a Peruvian fighter pilot working with the CIA in a program to halt airborne drug smugglers.
(Photo By Silvia Izquierdo -- Associated Press)

CIA Withheld Details On Downing, IG Says
Shooting in Peru Killed Missionary, Infant

November 21, 2008 - Washington Post

By Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writer

An internal CIA probe has concluded that agency officials deliberately misled Congress, the White House and federal prosecutors about key details of the 2001 downing of an airplane carrying U.S. missionaries in Peru, according to a senior lawmaker who called yesterday for a new criminal inquiry into the case.

The agency's inspector general said CIA officers repeatedly ignored rules of engagement in a joint U.S.-Peruvian campaign to halt airborne drug smugglers, resulting in the downing of at least 10 other aircraft without proper warnings. Afterward, CIA managers concealed the problems from lawmakers and the Justice Department, the agency watchdog said.

Even the White House was kept in the dark, as agency officials and lawyers withheld key details while cautioning their staff to avoid putting anything in writing that might be used later in a criminal or civil case, the inspector general said in a report.

Unclassified excerpts from the report were released by Rep. Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, who blasted the agency for actions that he said were tantamount to obstruction of justice.

"These are the most serious and substantial allegations of wrongdoing I've seen in my time on the committee," said Hoekstra, whose western Michigan district was home to the two Americans killed in the 2001 incident.

The White House declined to comment on the report, which was disclosed on the eve of a trip by President Bush to Peru to attend a regional summit. The CIA's current director, Michael V. Hayden, was aware of the report and had begun his own inquiry before deciding how to respond, an agency spokesman said.

The controversial anti-drug program operated from 1995 to 2001 to assist Peru in stopping drug traffickers from ferrying narcotics through the country's airspace. CIA officers in small planes would track flights by suspected drug runners before alerting Peruvian fighter pilots, who would swoop in for the kill.

The program had succeeded in bringing down numerous suspect planes when, on April 20, 2001, a Peruvian pilot mistakenly shot into a small aircraft carrying a family of Baptist missionaries from Michigan. A bullet struck and killed one of the missionaries, Veronica "Roni" Bowers, and her infant daughter, Charity. The pilot was wounded but managed to land the plane. Bowers's husband and their 6-year-old son were not injured.

Multiple investigations at the time found that the CIA had been lax in its oversight of the program and had failed to ensure that strict rules were followed in identifying the plane before calling in the Peruvian fighter. Yet, according to the inspector general's report, agency officials sought from the outset to conceal the program's serious problems, while portraying the 2001 shooting as an aberration.

"Within hours, CIA officers began to characterize the shoot-down as a one-time mistake in an otherwise well-run program," the report stated. "In fact, this was not the case."

Instead, in nearly every instance, CIA and Peruvian participants ignored guidelines intended to prevent innocent pilots from being shot from the sky, it said. Often, suspect planes were shot down "within two to three minutes of being sighted . . . without being properly identified, without being given adequate warnings to land," it said.

Hoekstra, citing the still-classified portions of the report, said the CIA's program was "actually operating and being implemented outside the law." The investigators found that CIA managers "knew of, and condoned" the violations and failed to properly oversee the program, he said.

Later, when asked by Justice officials and congressional overseers about the problems, CIA officials gave misleading accounts, the inspector general concluded. The agency had by late 2001 documented "sustained and significant violations . . . dating back to the first shoot-down," yet it failed to share its findings with Justice and congressional investigators, or with the White House National Security Council, the report said.

The Justice Department closed its investigation in 2005 without filing criminal charges against any of the CIA employees -- a decision Hoekstra supported at the time. But the Michigan Republican called yesterday for a new criminal probe as well as congressional hearings. "Americans deserve to know that agencies given power to operate on their behalf aren't abusing that power, or their trust," he said.

Hoekstra said he did not know how widely the problems were known within the upper ranks of the CIA's management. But he said he had personally presided over congressional hearings attended by CIA managers who knew the facts but did not speak up.

"CIA officials in front of my committee may have allowed incomplete or misleading statements to be made," he said.

Hayden, who was appointed CIA director in 2006, received a copy of the report in August and "recognized the seriousness" of the findings, agency spokesman Mark Mansfield said. Hayden is now "seeking input from a cleared outside expert -- one who knows the complex issues involved in an air interdiction program -- before making any decisions," he added. Among those reportedly advising Hayden was retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.

"The CIA takes very seriously questions of responsibility and accountability. To suggest otherwise does a great disservice to those who work at the agency," Mansfield said.

A senior intelligence official familiar with the internal report said the classified version presented a more nuanced account of the actions of agency officers in Peru who, he said, were placed in a difficult position.

In addition, "there are numerous facts and circumstances not laid out in the IG report that would be relevant to any decisions that would be made," the official said.

Staff writer Carrie Johnson and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.