WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors have decided not to seek criminal charges against CIA officers who were part of an antidrug operation that was involved in the downing of a missionary plane in Peru and the deaths of two Americans in 2001.
Justice Department officials have until now not even acknowledged that they were investigating potential misconduct by the intelligence officers, including whether they lied to lawmakers who were looking into the incident and the interdiction program. But on Saturday, Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said, “We declined a criminal prosecution earlier this week.”
Among other things, prosecutors examined what CIA officials told the Senate intelligence committee in 2001, Sierra said.
A Pennsylvania-based missionary group’s Cessna float plane was shot down by a Peruvian jet in April 2001 after a CIA-operated surveillance plane misidentified it as a possible drug-smuggling flight. At the last moment, the contractors tried in vain to prevent the Peruvian pilots from opening fire.
Veronica Bowers, 35, of Muskegon, Mich., and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, were killed.
While not assigning blame, a U.S.-Peruvian inquiry concluded that procedural errors, language problems and an overloaded communications system contributed to the downing.
The U.S. crew later realized the flight was innocent, but couldn’t stop the Peruvians from shooting.
The United States immediately halted its participation in interdiction program flights in Peru and Colombia. Last year, President Bush authorized the resumption of U.S. drug surveillance flights over Colombia, but the interdiction program remains on hold in Peru.
The Senate intelligence committee inquiry in 2001 concluded the CIA should no longer run the flights over Peru if they are resumed.
“The primary culprit in this case was lax management.
“Established safety procedures were permitted to erode unchecked for a period of years. CIA officials, from the program manager to the Director (at the time, George Tenet), failed to properly manage this program with tragic results,” Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said at the time.
The decision to close the criminal investigation was first reported online Saturday by the New York Times.