Shooting down of missionaries laid to lax rules

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WASHINGTON — Peru and the United States were undisciplined and "sloppy" in the way they conducted a joint program to interdict airborne drug smugglers in recent years, and share responsibility for the mistaken shooting down of a civilian aircraft carrying U.S. missionaries over northern Peru in April, according to sources familiar with the findings of a State Department probe investigation.

The shooting down of the plane occurred after a CIA surveillance plane flown by American contract employees targeted the aircraft as a suspected drug flight, tracked it and helped guide a Peruvian Air Force fighter jet to it. A Baptist missionary, Veronica "Roni" Bowers, and her 7-month-old daughter were killed, and pilot Kevin Donaldson was seriously wounded.

Although the United States preliminarily concluded after the incident that Peru did not comply with shooting-down procedures established in a 1994 agreement, the report does not assign direct blame, according to several sources, all of whom refused to be identified. Instead, the report compiles facts about the aerial interdiction program as well as immediate events leading to the April 20 deaths.

Sources declined to provide specific details but said the report characterizes the program as having limited U.S. oversight and having evolved into lax adherence to procedures by both the U.S. and Peru. They said it will likely prompt calls from Congress and elsewhere to limit or end U.S. ground and air radar and tracking assistance to interdiction programs in Peru and Colombia — neither of which has radar capability to operate on its own.

The Bush administration suspended intelligence agreements with both countries after the missionary plane was shot down, pending results of the investigation to be jointly conducted by the United States and Peru. But Bush officials, and Clinton administration officials before, have cited the program as the key factor in a sharp decrease in the cultivation of coca and export of cocaine from Peru over the past five years. They have warned that the shipments could easily start up again now that traffickers know the skies are unpatrolled.

Although the CIA has near-exclusive control over the air-surveillance program in Peru, the U.S. Customs Service has provided much of the service in Colombia. The Colombians have used the assistance primarily to follow planes re-entering the country after suspected drug runs to the Caribbean and the United States, attacking them after they land rather than shooting them down. Much of Colombia's cocaine, which supplies 90 percent of the U.S. market, is transported by sea and/or land.

Administration concern about the program's future has been reflected in its reluctance to release the State Department report, completed weeks ago. The administration last month hired former U.S. ambassador to Colombia Morris Busby, to study the report and conduct a broad policy review before it decides what to do.

Based on video- and audiotapes from the CIA two-engine Cessna Citation V, it initially appeared to U.S. officials that the Peruvian colonel aboard, his fellow officers in radio contact on the ground and the pilot of the Peruvian Air Force A37B had rushed through, or even skipped, steps set out in the 1994 agreement, which prescribes a sequence of identifying, contacting and then warning a drug flight.

The State Department report shows that procedures had evolved, with mutual awareness, into something "much less detailed and defined" than when they started in 1994, a source said. "In bureaucratic language ... (the report) comes out and says we were sloppy."

Even before the report, questions were raised by former U.S. employees of the program about the initial decision by the CIA contract pilots, on a routine surveillance flight, to track and then target a civilian aircraft headed directly toward the region's main airport at midday.

It also appeared that the Peruvians had not checked the registration number, written clearly in large black letters on the wing and sides of Donaldson's Cessna 185.

The State Department and the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, which employed Donaldson, Bowers and her husband, disagree on whether Donaldson, who flew regularly in the area, had filed an proper flight plan. Bowers' husband and son survived the crash.

Beyond procedural problems, sources said, investigators found that overall training of CIA and Peruvian program participants — many of whom did not share a common language — was less than ideal. They also found that there was little U.S. oversight of how the policy was conducted beyond the CIA station and U.S. Embassy in Lima.

A draft report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which did its own investigation of the interdiction program and April 20 incident, reaches similar conclusions, sources said. Though the CIA said it also would investigate, officials didn't provide information.