Officials Long Debated Risks of Anti-Drug Patrol in Peru

New York Times -- 21 May 2001

by James Risen and Christopher Marquis

WASHINGTON, May 21 -The anti-drug program that led to the downing of a plane carrying American missionaries in Peru last month has provoked intense government debate since its inception, according to current and former officials and government documents.

A Peruvian military jet, operating with spotters under contract with the C.I.A., shot down the missionaries' plane on April 20 as part of an aggressive military operation to halt cocaine traffic between Colombia and Peru. The operation has been suspended since the incident, but it had continued for seven years after an explicit warning from the State Department in 1994 that the program could result in civilian deaths.

"There is a risk of killing people not involved in criminal activity," the State Department warned in a memo on May 10, 1994, which was obtained by the National Security Archive, a private research group. In the memo, department lawyers said involvement in shooting down civilian aircraft would violate international law and urged policy makers not to take part.

A former United States official who monitored the operation said the use of combat aircraft against suspected drug smugglers was understood to be dangerous from the outset. "Everyone knew this was a high- gain, high-risk program," the official said.

But President Clinton still approved an American role in 1994, and an array of agencies -- including the C.I.A. -- poured into the Andes to provide anti-drug intelligence and fly surveillance alongside Peruvian and Colombian fighters. One State Department official said at the time that failure to take part could lead critics to accuse the Clinton administration of being weak on drugs.

American officials, seeking to defend their decision, argue that the program was highly successful, at least locally, though drug traffickers eventually found new ways to get their product to American markets.

But the program bound the United States to President Alberto K. Fujimori of Peru, who ruled for a decade until he was finally forced to flee last year in the face of scandal. That relationship in turn led the Central Intelligence Agency to close ties to Vladimiro Montesinos, the spymaster under President Fujimori.

For a decade, Mr. Montesinos was Peru's Mr. Fix-It, and C.I.A. officials were convinced that American counternarcotics operations in the region could not continue without his support.

Troubled by reports of his corruption and possible involvement in rights abuses, the Clinton administration reviewed the relationship with Mr. Montesinos in the mid- 1990's, but decided that his power to command Peruvian cooperation in the drug war trumped questions about his background.

The uncomfortable alliance posed a larger question about the price of success in the Andean drug war, and recalled the C.I.A.'s past ties elsewhere in Latin America, including those to Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega of Panama, who was ultimately ousted by American troops in 1989.

The agency had justified its alliances with right-wing figures from Guatemala to Chile on similiar grounds.

From the early 1950's, American policy makers from both parties had concluded that terrorism and revolution -- and later, traffic in illicit drugs to the United States -- had to be fought by all available means.

Today Mr. Montesinos is a fugitive, accused in Peru of crimes including involvement in massacres, arms trafficking, money laundering and vote rigging. And American officials have been forced to defend their decision to continue dealing with Mr. Fujimori and his intelligence chief until late last year.

And the airborne anti-drug program in Peru has been suspended while the downing of the missionaries' plane is investigated. The shooting killed Veronica Bowers, of Michigan, and her infant daughter.

It is now plain that policy makers clearly understood the risks of shooting down planes to stop drug trafficking, and of dealing with Mr. Montesinos. The parallel tales cast light on the little-known role played by the C.I.A. in the war on drugs.

The Risks

Program in Place, With Legal Shield

Peru's role as the largest source of coca paste and cocaine base made the nation a linchpin in American efforts to stem the flow of drugs. For years, American officials debated how best to halt flights carrying coca paste from Peru into Colombia, where it was processed into cocaine and shipped to the United States.

As early as the mid-1980's, C.I.A. officials considered -- and rejected -- proposals to aid Peru and Colombia in shooting down the planes, former agency officials said. "I remember someone saying that there are a lot of missionaries flying around there, and you might shoot down the wrong plane," said one former high- ranking official.

In 1992, the Peruvians fired on a United States C-130 airplane that was gathering intelligence on drug trafficking, killing a crew member.

The incident led to intensive talks over the rules of engagement in the drug war, recalled Anthony Quainton, who was ambassador to Peru from 1989 through 1992.

By the summer of 1992, the United States had established radar stations in Peru to help track drug planes. The Peruvians, guided by the radar, were forcing planes down, rather than shooting them, Mr. Quainton recalled.

It was not until 1994 that the Clinton administration addressed whether to help Colombia and Peru with their plans to destroy planes that refused to land.

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the Clinton administration's drug czar, recalled in an interview that the Pentagon decided to suspend the intelligence support as a result of a review of air operations worldwide that was begun after 26 people were killed when two United States Air Force F-15's shot down two Army Blackhawk helicopters over Iraq in April 1994.

The Defense Department was worried that Americans might be held liable for the deaths of innocents.

But the administration was deeply divided. A cable dated May 9, 1994, from the American Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, also obtained by the National Security Archive, revealed the embassy's anger with the suspension of intelligence support.

The order was "totally unnecessary and is driving us to potentially seriously damage our narcotics cooperation in the key source countries," the cable said.

Yet there were also clear warnings that aerial attacks carried huge risks. For example, a separate State Department memo, also written in May 1994, said the downing of an Iran Air commercial aircraft over the Persian Gulf by a United States Navy warship in 1988 had demonstrated that "even the best trained and equipped personnel can make mistakes."

So that June, Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, sponsored legislation that would exempt American officials from any liability stemming from the destruction of suspected drug-trafficking planes. With that protection in place, Mr. Clinton ordered American airmen and technicians in December to join the Andean anti-drug operations.

The Program

Calling All Planes! The U.S. Moves In

Under the direction of the Pentagon's Southern Command, virtually every agency with aviation resources provided surveillance support to Peru and Colombia.

In Peru, the United States Customs Service brought in P-3 Orion aircraft with radar systems that could monitor broad regions. The Customs Service and C.I.A. also began to fly smaller Citation surveillance aircraft to help Peruvian pilots intercept small planes. The United States Air Force also had a role.

The flights were supported by intelligence collected by the National Security Agency, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the C.I.A., according to American officials. The N.S.A., an eavesdropping and code- breaking agency, passed on intercepted communications that indicated when a drug plane was either in the air or about to fly, officials said.

During the next few years, the Peruvian Air Force shot down, grounded or strafed at least 30 aircraft suspected of ferrying drugs. Pilots were soon demanding huge fees to fly drugs, or refused to fly at all. The price of coca began to plummet in Peru, and farmers switched to other crops.

Although the cocaine cartels eventually found new routes and moved coca production to Colombia, the interruption of the air bridge provided the Clinton administration with a triumph -- however temporary -- in the drug war.

The Liaison

Spymaster Makes an Unlikely Ally

On the ground, reports linking Mr. Montesinos, the spymaster, to two massacres in Peru in the early 1990's prompted a review in Washington in 1995, and some State Department officials recommended severing the link. But the C.I.A. maintained that his role was crucial to anti-drug programs.

Agency officials now insist that they never defended Mr. Montesinos; they say they merely pointed out that ending the relationship would end Peru's cooperation in fighting the drug war. Agency officials also argued that the evidence linking him to the killings was inconclusive. "There were no show-stoppers in the record, things that said the liabilities of dealing with this guy outweighed the advantages," said one former C.I.A. official who was involved in the debate.

Officials at other agencies disagreed, but the Clinton White House ultimately concluded that limited contacts with Mr. Montesinos could continue because of his importance to counternarcotics and counterterrorism programs.

"Everybody was uncomfortable," said one official who worked in the White House then, "but he was the guy who got things done."

Mr. Montesinos repeatedly signaled that he could not be ignored: Twice in the late 1990's, he abruptly shut off Peruvian cooperation on some anti-drug programs until he was invited to C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va. Cooperation resumed after his visits.

It was not until last year, when charges of electoral fraud began to weaken President Fujimori's grip, that the Clinton administration opened another review of its ties to Mr. Montesinos. This time, it decided to withdraw all support from the Fujimori government.

In September, the Peruvian media broadcast a videotape apparently showing Mr. Montesinos bribing a Peruvian congressman, starting a gradual collapse of the Fujimori government. Both the former spy chief and his boss eventually fled the country.

The future of the airborne anti- drug program remains uncertain.