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Report: CIA Withheld Info on Plane Shootdown

POSTED: 04:24 PM ET, 11/20/2008 by Derek Kravitz

"Washington Watchdogs," a periodic feature of the Post's Investigations blog, looks at the findings of the federal government's official investigators.

A CIA report released by a congressional lawmaker could reopen the controversy about the 2001 shootdown of an American missionary plane mistakenly identified as a drug smuggler flying over Peru's Amazon region.

The CIA withheld reports about the incident from the National Security Council, Justice Department and Congress, according to excerpts of an inspector general's report released by the senior Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

The agency's Office of General Counsel had also advised CIA managers to avoid producing written reports about what happened "to avoid both criminal charges against Agency officers and civil liability."

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

Excerpts from the report were released by the office of Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican and the senior ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee.

In a statement, Hoekstra called for a criminal investigation into whether the CIA lied to Congress or withheld information about the Amazon shootdown.

"To say these deaths did not have to happen is more than an understatement," Hoekstra said. "The CIA knew about repeated serious issues with this program, but took no corrective actions, which could have prevented this needless tragedy. Making matters worse, the inspector general found continuous efforts to cover the matter up and potentially block criminal investigation."

The report was completed in August and forwarded to Congress in October. The Associated Press reports that CIA Director Michael Hayden has not made recommendations about the inspector general's report but asked former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, to advise him on the matter.

Press reports described the following incident:

On April 20, 2001, a small pontoon plane, a single-engine Cessna 185 owned by the U.S.-based Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, was transporting an American family of four from Brazil to Peru.

A surveillance plane contracted to work with the CIA's aerial counternarcotics program identified the Cessna as a possible drug-smuggling aircraft. The Peruvian Air Force decided to shoot the Cessna down.

According to a 2001 State Department report, the three-member American crew aboard the CIA aircraft argued that the target plane might be on an innocent flight and objected to the plan to shoot it down.

At the time, a U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Post: "The U.S. crew repeatedly expressed their concern that the nature of the aircraft had not been determined. Despite serious concerns raised by the U.S. crew, shoot-down was ordered by the Peruvian air force...They (the Americans) were surprised when the firing began because it happened so quickly."

As the Peruvian fighter plane fired, one of the passengers aboard the downed plane, Jim Bowers, yelled into his headset: "Kevin! We're being shot at!"

The pilot, Kevin Donaldson, then pushed the control stick down, plunging the plane into the Amazon River and screaming into the radio: "We're being attacked! We're being attacked!"

The Peruvian fighters shot the plane down near the jungle town of Pebas, about 700 miles northeast of Lima. Bowers' wife, 35-year-old Veronica "Roni" Bowers of Pace, Fla., and his 7-month-old daughter, Charity, were killed by a single bullet that passed through the fuselage. The American pilot, Donaldson, had his left leg shattered by bullets and he lost three liters of blood.

Donaldson survived, as did Jim Bowers and his 6-year-old son, Cory.

Following the incident, U.S. officials suspended surveillance flights over the busy drug-smuggling corridor and American and Peruvian officials acknowledged errors were made. President Bush called Bowers personally to express regret.

The government later settled a lawsuit with the families and the missionary group. The terms were not disclosed; an attorney for the missionaries said they had asked for $35 million and received a smaller sum that he described as "satisfactory."

But Bowers told The Associated Press in 2002 that he was awaiting an apology from the CIA. "It doesn't matter how much you forgive a person," he said from his home in Garner, N.C. "When they do something wrong, they should still suffer the consequences."

A Senate Intelligence Committee investigation found that the CIA had been lax in managing the program and the Peruvian military had shown a "tragic" lack of judgment. It recommended the U.S. stop running interdiction flights.

The Justice Department dropped its own criminal investigation into the incident in 2005.

By Derek Kravitz |  November 20, 2008; 4:24 PM ET Washington Watchdogs
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