WASHINGTON – The CIA repeatedly misled Congress and the Justice Department in their investigations of the 2001 shoot-down of a Peruvian plane carrying U.S. missionaries, according to findings of an internal CIA probe released Thursday by congressional officials.
The agency’s inspector general concluded that CIA officers in Peru consistently ignored rules of engagement in connection with the downing of at least 10 aircraft suspected of carrying narcotics over the South American country. Yet, CIA managers covered up the problems and knowingly gave false accounts to government officials investigating whether agency employees committed crimes.
Excerpts of the inspector general’s report were released by Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee. He called for a new criminal inquiry, as well as congressional hearings, into what he described as a “startling” attempted coverup by the spy agency.
“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 two of the Americans killed in the 2001 incident.
As part of a joint U.S.-Peruvian antidrug program that began in the mid-1990s, CIA officers helped Peruvian air force pilots identify aircraft suspected of carrying illegal drugs through the country’s airspace. The program had succeeded in bringing down numerous suspected planes when, in April 2001, a Peruvian pilot mistakenly shot into a small plane carrying U.S. missionaries. Two of the Americans on board, Veronica “Roni” Bowers and her infant daughter, Charity, were struck by bullets and killed. The pilot, although wounded, managed to land the plane. Bowers’ 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 opening fire. But, according to Hoekstra, agency officials had repeatedly described the 2001 incident as an aberration, insisting that CIA officers had closely followed the rules in other cases. In 2005, the Justice Department concluded its probe after deciding against filing criminal charges against any of the U.S. officials involved.
Hoekstra, citing the findings of a seven-year inspector general’s investigation, said the CIA’s program was “actually operating and being implemented outside the law,” as agency officers routinely ignored strict rules requiring that the suspicious planes be carefully identified and given multiple warnings. Those rules were ignored in “more than 10” previous downings investigated by the inspector general, Hoekstra said. He did not give specific examples, explaining that most of the report’s contents remain classified.
The investigators found that CIA managers “knew of, and condoned” the violations and failed to properly oversee the program. Later, when asked about the problems by Justice officials and congressional overseers, CIA officials gave misleading accounts, knowingly distorting the facts, Hoekstra said.
A CIA spokesman said the agency’s current director, Michael Hayden, learned of the then-incomplete inspector general’s report in August and “recognized the seriousness” of the findings, though he had not yet reached a decision about how to respond.