The Peru Shoot Down: The CIA, DynCorp, and Why the Truth May Not Come Out
Among the five cases of intelligence operation cover up currently being investigated by the US House Intelligence Committee is the 2001 shoot down of a small plane in Peru, resulting in the death of a Baptist missionary from Michigan and her 7-month-old daughter. The CIA inspector general has already concluded that the CIA improperly concealed information about the incident.
Intelligence Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairwoman Jan Schakowsky, who is leading the investigation, says she hasn’t ruled out referrals to the Justice Department for criminal prosecutions if evidence surfaces that intelligence officials broke the law. On the other hand, she hasn’t guaranteed that the true story will ever be released, since the Committee’s report of its investigation will be classified.
So, what happened in Peru, and why? At first, of course, the CIA employed its usual tactics: denial and deflection of blame. The goal was not to reveal the real reason for the operation, most likely either a pretext or a diversion.
As I reported in August 2001, in an investigative article cited by Project Censored, the incident occurred on April 20 of that year. After the plane carrying missionaries across the Brazilian border into Peru was shot down, the first version of the “official story” fed to the press was that Peruvian authorities had ordered the attack on their own, over the pleas of CIA "contract pilots" who initially spotted the plane. But that didn’t hold up for long, since Peruvian pilots involved in the program, supposedly designed to intercept drug flights, insisted that nothing was shot down without US approval.
Innocent planes were sometimes attacked, but most of them were low flying puddle-jumpers that didn't file flight plans and had no radios or instrumentation. This plane maintained regular radio contact and did file a plan. Still, even after it crash-landed, the Peruvians continued to strafe it, perhaps in an attempt to ignite the plane's fuel and eliminate the evidence.
"I think it has to do with Plan Colombia and the coming war," said Celerino Castillo, who had previously worked in Peru for Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). "The CIA was sending a clear message to all non-combatants to clear out of the area, and to get favorable press." The flight was heading to Iquitos, which "is at the heart of everything the CIA is doing right now," he added. "They don't want any witnesses."
Timing also may have played a part. The shoot down occurred on the opening day of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. Uruguay's President Jorge Ibanez, who had proposed the worldwide legalization of drugs just weeks before, was expected to make a high-profile speech on his proposal at the gathering. The downing of a drug smuggling plane at this moment, near territory held by Colombia's FARC rebels, would help to defuse Uruguay's message and reinforce the image of the insurgents as drug smugglers.
If you doubt that the US would condone such an operation or cover it up, consider this: In 1967, Israel torpedoed the USS Liberty, a large floating listening post, as it was eavesdropping on the Arab-Israeli war off the Sinai Peninsula. Hundreds of US sailors were wounded and killed, probably because Israel feared that its massacre of Egyptian prisoners at El Arish might be overheard. How did the Pentagon respond? By imposing a total news ban, and covering up the facts for decades.
But the most crucial wrinkle in the Peruvian shoot down was the involvement of a private military company, DynCorp, which was active in Colombia and Bolivia under large contracts with various US agencies. The day after the incident, ABC news reported that, according to “senior administration officials,” the crew of the surveillance plane that first identified the doomed aircraft "was hired by the CIA from DynCorp." Within two days, however, all references to DynCorp were removed from ABC's Website. A week later, the New York Post claimed the crew actually worked for Aviation Development Corp., allegedly a CIA proprietary company.
Whatever the truth, State Department officials refused to talk on the record about DynCorp's activities in South America. Yet, according to DynCorp's State Department contract, the firm had received at least $600 million over the previous few years for training, drug interdiction, search and rescue (which included combat), air transport of equipment and people, and reconnaissance in the region. And that was only what they put on paper. It also operated government aircraft and provided all manner of personnel, particularly for Plan Colombia.
Will we ever find out what really happened in Peru, and specifically why a missionary and her daughter were killed? Not very likely, since it involves a private military contractor (PMC) that is basically beyond the reach of congressional accountability. DynCorp began in 1946 as the employee-owned air cargo business California Eastern Airways, flying in supplies for the Korean War. This and later government work led to charges that it was a CIA front company. Whatever the truth, it ultimately became a leading PMC, hiring former soldiers and police officers to implement US foreign policy without having to report to Congress.
The push to privatize war gained traction during the first Bush administration. After the first Gulf War, the Pentagon, then headed by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, paid a Halliburton subsidiary nearly $9 million to study how PMCs could support US soldiers in combat zones, according to a Mother Jones investigation. Cheney subsequently became CEO of Halliburton, and Brown & Root, later known as Halliburton KBR, won billions to construct and run military bases, some in secret locations.
In the early 1990s, one of DynCorp’s earliest “police” contracts involved the protection of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and, after he was ousted, providing the “technical advice” that brought military officers involved in that coup into the Haiti’s National Police. Despite this dodgy record, in 2002 it won the contract to protect another new president, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai. By then, of course, it was a top IT federal contractor specializing in computer systems development, and also providing the government with aviation services, general military management, and security expertise.
Like other private military outfits, the main danger it faces is the risk of public exposure. Under one contract, for example, DynCorp sprayed vast quantities of herbicides over Colombia to kill the cocaine crop. In September 2001, Ecuadorian Indians filed a class action lawsuit, charging that DynCorp recklessly sprayed their homes and farms, causing illnesses and deaths and destroying crops. In Bosnia, private police provided by DynCorp for the UN were accused of buying and selling prostitutes, including a 12-year-old girl. Others were charged with videotaping a rape.
So far, DynCorp has avoided the kind of public scandal that surrounds the activities of Blackwater. In Ecuador, where it has developed military logistics centers and coordinated “anti-terror” police training, the exposure of a secret covenant it signed with the Aeronautics Industries Directorate of the Ecuadorian Air Force briefly threatened to make waves. According to a November 2003 exposé in Quito’s El Comercio, the arrangement, hidden from the National Defense Council, made DynCorp’s people part of the US diplomatic mission.
In Colombia, DynCorp’s coca eradication and search-and-rescue missions led to controversial pitched battles with rebels. US contract pilots flew Black Hawk helicopters carrying Colombian police officers who raked the countryside with machine gun fire to protect the missions against attacks. According to investigative reporter Jason Vest, DynCorp employees were also implicated in narcotics trafficking. But such stories didn’t get far, and, in any case, DynCorp’s “trainers” have simply ignored congressional rules, including those that restrict the US from aiding military units linked to human rights abuses.
In 2003, DynCorp won a multimillion-dollar contract to build a private police force in post-Saddam Iraq, with some of the funding diverted from an anti-drug program for Afghanistan. In 2004, the State Department further expanded DynCorp’s role as a global US surrogate with a $1.75 billion, five year contract to provide law enforcement personnel for civilian policing operations in “post-conflict areas” around the world. That March, the company also got an Army contract to support helicopters sold to foreign countries. The work, described as “turnkey” services, includes program management, logistics support, maintenance and aircrew training, aircraft maintenance and refurbishment, repair and overhaul of aircraft components and engines, airframe and engine upgrades, and the production of technical publications.
The US government downplays its use of mercenaries, a state of affairs that could undermine the current efforts to find out about CIA activities that were concealed from Congress. But the reality is that private contractors perform almost every function essential to military operations, a situation that has been called the “creeping privatization of the business of war.” By 2004, the Pentagon was employing more than 700,000 private contractors. Who knows how high that figure has climbed since then.
How did it happen? In 1969, the US Army had about 1.5 million active duty soldiers. By 1992, the figure had been cut by half. Since the mid-1990s, however, the US has mobilized militarily to intervene in several significant conflicts, and a corporate “foreign legion” has filled the gap between foreign policy imperatives and what a downsized, increasingly over-stretched military can provide.
Use of high technology equipment feeds the process. Private companies have technical capabilities that the military needs, but doesn’t possess. Contractors maintain stealth bombers and Predator unmanned drones used in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some military equipment is specifically designed to be operated and maintained by private companies.
In Britain, the debate over military privatization has been public, since the activities of the UK company Sandline in Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea embarrassed the government in the late 1990s. But no country has clear policies to regulate PMCs, and the limited oversight that does exist rarely works. In the US, they have largely escaped notice, except when US contract workers in conflict zones are killed or go way over the line, as in the case of Blackwater.
According to Guy Copeland, who began developing public-private IT policy in the Reagan years, “The private sector must play an integral role in improving our national cybersecurity.” After all, he has noted, private interests own and operate 85 percent of the nation’s critical IT infrastructure. He should know. After all, Copeland drafted much of the language in the Bush Administration’s 2002 National Strategy to Secure Cyberspace as co-chair of the Information Security Committee of the Information Technology Association of America.
Nevertheless, when the federal government becomes dependent on unaccountable, private companies like DynCorp and Blackwater (now called Xe Services) for so many key security services, as well as for military logistics, management, strategy, expertise and “training,” fundamental elements of US defense have been outsourced. And the details of that relationship are matters that the intelligence community will fight long and hard to keep out of public view.