In January 1998, five twin-engine Cessna Citation V jets owned
by the Defense Department
arrived at Alabama's Maxwell
Air Force Base. Their landing was heralded by the local Montgomery
Advertiser, which noted in a short but enthusiastic piece that
the aircraft were part of a $10 million program the military had
outsourced to a recently incorporated local contractor.
According to the paper, the new company, Aviation
Development Corporation, had been retained to test state-of-the-art
airborne radar, forward-looking infrared, and signals intercept
sensors--sensors that, according to a base spokesman, had broad
applications for aerial law enforcement operations and military
search-and-rescue missions. It wasn't a stretch to conclude that
the sensors-equipped aircraft were destined for Latin America, where
a number of private military companies have spent the past decade
flying a variety of anti-drug missions for the U.S. government.
On April 20, 2001, a Peruvian air force jet shot down a small single-prop
plane full of
Baptist missionaries, killing Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter.
The Baptist plane was not fingered by the Peruvians, but by what the
Washington Post initially reported was a CIA surveillance aircraft--a
Cessna Citation V, to be precise. Subsequent reports noted that the
aircraft was in fact owned by the Defense Department, but operated
by a crew of outside contractors who have gone unidentified--a perfect
example if the lack of accountability due to the privatization of
the drug war.
An In These Times investigation has revealed that the contract
aircrew is likely employed by Aviation Development Corporation,
the same company that handled the Cessna surveillance tests in Alabama.
"All I'm going to say about who was flying that plane in Peru,"
a Pentagon official told In These Times, "is that you should
look around Maxwell Air Force Base," where ADC is based.
No one answers ADC's phone, and its president, Edward A. "Lex"
Thistlethwaite Jr., did not return messages left at his home. Despite
having a listing in the Maxwell Air Force Base phone directory,
spokesman Capt. Ken Hoffman was also unable to reach anyone from
ADC. Nor was he able to find anyone at the base who knew anything
about the company or the current location of the Cessna Citations.
When Glenn Owen--whom Alabama records list as the company's secretary--was
reached at his home, he refused to answer any questions about ADC's
connections with the U.S. government or its Latin American operations.
"I'm not free to comment," he said, refusing to elaborate. "And
I don't see anyone getting back to you."
In the name of counter-narcotics, the U.S. government has been
waging a private war in the Andes for years. While active-duty U.S.
soldiers are allowed to train South American military units, under
congressional mandate and Pentagon regulations, they're not allowed
to take part in combat, and limitations are placed on the number
of personnel who can be in-country. (For example, Plan Colombia
caps the number of active-duty soldiers in-country at 500.)
However, the same restrictions do not apply to private military
companies under contract with the U.S. government. While a State
Department rule technically prohibits contractors from taking part
in combat operations, the rule has been clearly violated, and a
handful of contractors have been killed in combat operations. Three
helicopter pilots employed by Virginia-based DynCorp
were shot down and killed in Peru in 1992, and this past February,
four DynCorp "contractors"--all ex-Special Forces--ended up in a
near-fatal firefight rescuing the crew of a helicopter downed by
Colombian FARC rebels.
Because these U.S. agents in Latin America are contractors, as
opposed to actual servicemen, both their activities and their deaths
attract little attention. This is hardly surprising given the notoriously
opaque qualities intrinsic to private military companies, and very
attractive to U.S. policy-makers who tremble at the thought of actual
servicemen either being linked to local human rights violators or
shipped home in coffins.
Drug war critics have long argued that it's time to reconsider
this approach to overseas counter-narcotics operations. On April
25, Rep. Jan Schakowsky
(D-Illinois) introduced the Andean Region Contractor Accountability
Act, a measure that calls for the U.S. government to cease using
outsourced contractors as surrogates for American military and law
enforcement elements in the Andes.
The bill's introduction came a day after Schakowsky and Rep.
Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia) sent a letter to President Bush
asking him not only to cease aerial intelligence sharing with all
the Andean countries, but to "immediately suspend all contracts
with private military firms and individuals for narcotics control
and law enforcement services in the Andean region."
Holding that the Bowers incident was a direct result of U.S. drug
policy, the duo added: "The U.S. uses private military companies
in its drug operations throughout Latin America, and they operate
largely out of the public eye. Now that their operations have resulted
in the deaths of two Americans, we believe it is time to take a
closer look at the policy that permits this practice."
"The most important thing the congresswoman is trying to say here
is that our current drug interdiction policy has failed, and we
need to re-examine our strategy in dealing with narcotics," says
Schakowsky spokesman Nadeam Elshami. "We have to be clear--if we're
going to participate in these kinds of activities, taxpayers need
to know. It should be our military that is participating, and not
private companies given taxpayer money to do the military's dirty
Though Virginia-based Military
Professional Resources Inc. (whose dubious claim to fame is
helping the Croatians plan the ethnic cleansing of the Serbian Krajina
in 1994) has not renewed its contract in Colombia, airborne units
from U.S.-based AirScan, East
Inc. and DynCorp are all still active in the Andes. According
to provisions of their contracts with the U.S. government, their
operatives are forbidden from interacting with the press, though
a few enterprising journalists have interviewed operatives who report
that their aircraft routinely return home with bullet holes courtesy
of narco-trafficking rebels.
The Andean insurgents are not, however, the only ones in the region
known for being trigger-happy. Over the years, a perennial problem
for the United States has been the "shoot first, ask questions later"
mentality of Latin American military pilots, and, in the name of
satiating zealous drug-war cheerleaders, the American agencies in
the drug war have done everything they can to divest themselves
of any responsibility for a mishap such as the Bowers incident.
As far back as seven years ago, Washington knew its counternarcotics
allies were a little too quick on the draw and, in May 1994, abruptly
suspended sharing real-time intercept intelligence with the Colombians
and Peruvians. Lawyers from the Justice, Defense and State departments
concluded that furnishing foreign powers with intelligence used
to shoot down unarmed civilian aircraft was a violation of a 1984
amendment to the International Convention on Civil Aviation. (That
the amendment had been backed by the United States as a response
to the Soviet downing of Korean Airlines flight 007 gave the issue
a particularly poignant edge.)
Of greater concern was the lawyers' conclusion that if U.S.-provided
intelligence was used in the accidental downing of an innocent aircraft--something
the Pentagon was seriously concerned about--U.S. personnel, at both
the executive and operational level, would be in definite violation
of the 1984 amendment, and, under its provisions, subject to criminal
charges and even the death penalty.
But upon appraisal of the freeze and the reasons for it, drug war
boosters in both the administration and Congress went into fits
of apoplexy and indignation, charging the Pentagon with undercutting
an effective counter-drug program. Among those infuriated by the
Pentagon move was New Jersey's Robert
Torricelli--then a Democratic representative, now a senator.
At a June 22, 1994 House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing, Torricelli
lambasted the Pentagon, calling it "incredible" that a trifle like
the "legal vulnerabilities of U.S. government officials" would require
a suspension of activity. In light of recent events, it's worth
revisiting one of Torricelli's riffs on this point:
The U.S. government tracks narco-traffickers bringing
cocaine to the United States. That information is merely provided
to the Peruvian or Colombian governments. They pass it to their
own officials, who make their own judgments. Peruvian aircraft tracks
a narco-trafficker, operating with no flight plan, often at night,
with no lights. The plane is approached and [there's an] attempt
to communicate. There's no response. They attempt on radio communications
on multiple frequencies. There's no response. There's an effort
to lead them to an airport for a forced landing. They refuse and
attempt to evade. And then warning shots are fired. Do you seriously
believe that there is a jury in America, of any combination of American
citizens, anywhere, under those circumstances, that would find a
liability for U.S. government officials?
Given recent circumstances, the question is perhaps best posed
to a suddenly widowed husband and father from Michigan. At the time,
however, a beleaguered Robert Gelbard, then an assistant secretary
of state, responded that the issue of balance between intelligence-sharing
and compliance with the law was "not an easy issue susceptible to
a sound-bite solution." Making the hearing even more surreal was
the flip-flop of rationality between Torricelli and Gelbard. Gelbard
maintained that the Peruvians and Colombians had not actually downed
any planes using U.S. radar information. Torricelli, recently returned
from an Andean junket, said that in private he had been told by
Colombian and Peruvian officials that dozens of planes either had
been forced or shot down by both governments. "If they admit that
they're shooting down aircraft, you suspend cooperation and sharing
information with them," Torricelli said. "Of course they're going
to [officially] tell you they're not shooting down any aircraft."
Torricelli's remarks reflected the "wink and nod" view taken by
drug warriors irked by legal restrictions on downing unarmed civilian
aircraft. In the end, those drug warriors carried the day: The 1995
Defense Authorization Act included language that not only allows
American military aircraft to take part in downing civilian planes,
but relieves pilots from any responsibility should they be complicit
in a wrongful shooting.
Since then, the United States has made sure its surveillance personnel
are not part of the chain-of-command that shoots down planes over
the Andes, and has expanded the use of private military contractors
in an effort to maintain an arms-length approach in the regions.
There are hopes that Schakowsky's bill will prompt a serious inquiry
not only into drug war orthodoxy, but this type of contractor use;
according to her staffers, even some Republicans are warming to
her proposed legislation. But she can expect a fight from the contractors,
many of whom have profitable, longstanding ties to the defense and
intelligence establishments, as well as the usual lot of craven
politicians from both parties who perpetuate the mythology of a
righteous drug war.