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The Shoot-Down Policy

by Alexander Cockburn

Drug Warriors Stonewall Probe Of Downed Plane
Remember that family of Baptists that got shot up in the Amazon in March of this year? Having concluded a bout of evangelizing among the Indians along the Peruvian Amazon, this same family was halved in size after a bullet from a Peruvian fighter plane fatally pierced Veronica and Charity Bower (mother and 7-month infant), while wounding Cessna pilot Kevin Donaldson and sparing the Baptist paterfamilias, Jim Bower and his son Cory.

The Peruvian Air Force fighter pilot was ordered to fire by a high-ranking Peruvian officer on the ground. This officer was getting his info, or misinfo, relayed to him by the CIA, in the sub-contracted guise of a plane owned by Aviation Development Corporation, based at Maxwell AFB in Hunstville, Ala. The CIA-sponsored plane containing three Anglos and one Peruvian (not able to talk to each other very well owing to language barriers), was monitoring the Cessna containing the missionaries and relaying its observations of the missionaries' position to the Peruvian Air Force.

This same CIA plane had originally been alerted to the unidentified Cessna by a long-range U.S. radar crew, based in Vieques, Puerto Rico. And monitoring the whole scene from its war room in Key West was U.S. Southern Military Command, which later tried to deny it had anything to do with the disaster. What a very large mass of people and resources to be watching one small plane!

But on what legal basis is it now possible for the United States, as made manifest through the CIA, to supervise the shooting down of small airplanes thousands of miles outside the jurisdiction? The answer comes in the form of a decision memorandum signed by President Bill Clinton in June of 1994, bringing "closure," to use a fashionable term, to acrimony within the administration on this issue. The documents in question are all available from the National Security Archive, whose Kate Doyle sued for them under the Freedom of Information Act.

As the Archive's preamble to the documents narrates, the United States began sharing real-time aerial tracking information with Colombia and Peru in July of 1990. When the Colombians told the United States they were thinking of a shoot-down policy for suspected drug planes, the U.S. State Department got nervous about possible legal ramifications if U.S. advisors were involved, as they undoubtedly would be. So the State Department proclaimed piously that both U.S. and international law precluded the use of weapons against civilian aircraft, except in self-defense. The Colombians said they wouldn't give up on the idea but would shelve it, at least for a while.

Peru adopted a forcedown policy in 1993, and at the end of that year, the Colombians (probably after back-channel prodding from the U.S. shoot-down faction) said they would now implement the shoot-down strategy formulated in 1990. A U.S. interagency group began a review of the new policies in January 1994. On May 1, the Clinton administration, led by the Department of Defense, announced a suspension on the sharing of real-time aerial tracking data with the two governments.

This was the signal for savage hand-to-hand bureaucratic combat inside the U.S. government. On the one side were ranged those departments and agencies deriving funding and a sense of mission in life from the War on Drugs: the State Department's bureaus of International Narcotics Matters (INM) and Inter-American Affairs (ARA), not to mention DEA, CIA, Customs, and so forth.

On the other side were the teams at the State Department's legal department and at Justice, offering the view that it was a perilous strategy to shoot down civil planes and that "mistakes are likely to occur under any policy that contemplates the use of weapons against civil aircraft in flight, even as a last resort." Veterans at State remembered the tremendous, self-righteous stink raised by the United States after the Soviet Union shot down a Korean airliner (KAL 007) that had penetrated its air space. The State Department cited a 1984 amendment of the Chicago Convention on civil aviation -- adopted in the wake of the KAL incident -- banning the use of force against civil aircraft.

In the end, Clinton characteristically tried to please both factions, while going along with the hawks. On June 21, l994, he secretly okayed U.S. cooperation with Colombia and Peru's shoot-down/forcedown policy, allowing U.S. aerial tracking data to be used in operations against suspicious aircraft "if the president has determined that such actions are necessary because of the threat posed by drug trafficking (sic) to the national security of that country and that the country has appropriate procedures in place to protect innocent aircraft."

As one bureaucrat happily noted, this Solomonic compromise would "reduce the (United States government's) exposure to criticism that such assistance violates international law." Colombia and Peru would be instructed that one way to cope with the difficulties presented by international agreements against shooting down civil aircraft would be to declare a "national emergency," as permitted under the relevant conventions. Another stratagem contemplated a campaign to convince nations deemed "aviation partners" to accept a "narrow exception" to international law in cases where "drug trafficking threatens the political institutions of a state and where the country imposes strict procedures to reduce the risk of attack against non-drug trafficking aircraft."

It turns out the CIA, the subcontractors, Southcom, Colombia and Peru have been responsible for downing anywhere from 25-30 small planes over the passage of the years since 1994. Who were they? No one seems to know, and please, the occupants of these planes weren't murdered in acts of international terrorism and piracy. No, they were "successfully interdicted," thus bringing a glow of satisfaction to the cheeks of those waging the war on drugs.

By the way, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association did think the policy was a lousy idea.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor May 30, 2001 (

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