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Report: U.S., Peru share blame in plane shootdown

U.S. surveillance video shows the Peruvian air force plane (highlight) and American missionary plane seconds before the latter was shot down.  

By Andrea Koppel and Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Lax procedures in a U.S.-Peruvian anti-drug program and poor communication led the Peruvian air force to shoot down an American missionary plane over Peru in April, according to a binational report on the incident.

The Peruvian government conducted the investigation, which involved all agencies participating in the U.S.-Peru drug interdiction program, including the U.S. State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA.

Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter died when the Peruvian air force shot down their single-engine Cessna. Pilot Kevin Donaldson and Veronica's husband and fellow missionary Jim Bowers survived the crash.

The report said the plane was initially spotted by a Peruvian lieutenant colonel aboard an aircraft owned by the U.S. Department of Defense and chartered by the CIA to derail aerial drug traffickers. Peruvian officials, in turn, authorized the shootdown, although some had already identified the plane as the Bowers'.

Watch video of the incident and listen to radio excerpts (April 20, 2001)

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Pentagon in '94 opposed Peru shootdown policy  
Donaldson's flight plan, obtained from North American Float Plane Service  
MESSAGE BOARD: The war on drugs  

Father of pilot Kevin Donaldson described what happened

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At a glance: Peru

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"Communications systems overload and cumbersome procedures played a role in reducing timely and accurate compliance with all applicable directives," the report said.

'Language limitations' a factor

The crew aboard the CIA-chartered aircraft voiced concerns several times that the suspect plane "did not fit the profile of a narco-trafficking aircraft" because it was flying too high, the report said.

But, the report indicated, the Peruvian liaison aboard the U.S. aircraft did not understand the American pilot's comments, because of "language limitations."

Earlier in the day, Peruvian air force personnel on the ground voiced concern about the Bowers' plane, hoping to ensure "it was not confused as a suspicious suspect target," the report said.

The Peruvians eventually identified the suspicious aircraft spotted by their airborne officer as the Bowers' plane. But, again, language problems and "communications overload" prevented the message from being understood by the crew on the U.S. plane.

Safety procedures not followed

In 1994, at the beginning of the joint U.S.-Peruvian "force-down" intercept program, the Clinton administration drew up a long and rigid list of procedures to avoid shooting down civilian planes. But the procedures were not followed at the time of the incident in April, senior Bush administration officials told CNN.

The procedures required Peruvian air force pilots to check flight plans of aircraft traveling through drug interdiction areas, trail suspicious aircraft through a significant amount of territory, check their serial numbers and attempt radio communication.

The Peruvians were then expected to attempt visual contact and to tilt or "wiggle" the wings of their plane to signal the suspicious plane to land. Only after all those methods failed were the Peruvians permitted to fire a warning shot at the plane -- and only with the permission of the regional air force commander.

The investigation showed that over time adherence to the procedures "became less detailed and explicit."

In the incident, the report showed that Donaldson, the pilot of the downed plane, did not file a customary return flight plan and did not respond to radio calls from the Peruvian air force that warned him to land the plane.

The investigation also noted a "communication difficulty" between the U.S. flight crew, whose Spanish was "extremely marginal," and the Peruvians involved -- the air force liaison aboard the CIA flight, whose English was likewise "marginal," and the pilots in the intercept plane, whose English was "nonexistent."

Aerial interdiction suspended

Aerial interdiction programs in the region have been suspended since the incident, and U.S. officials said suspicious air activity in the area has already increased.

"If the aerial interdiction program is not resumed, we could build alternatives, although they won't be as good," a senior administration official said. "With the window of opportunity, some confident drug traffickers are taking advantage of it."

Officials said the force-down element of the interception program is essential to U.S.-led counter-narcotics efforts in the region. They said the program nearly eliminated cocaine production in Peru and Bolivia because traffickers could not fly out of the country.

Although the investigation into the April incident is complete, a review of the force-down intercept programs in Latin America is still under way.

Officials said the review, led by former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Morris Busby and expected in a few weeks, would likely recommend more safeguards. One official said it is expected to offer a "series of options" for the timing and sequence of the program and for what the CIA's role in tracking the flights should be.

"The loss of two people who were obviously utterly and completely innocent is a tragedy," one senior administration official said. "So [we'd] better ensure the likelihood of this happening again is as close to zero as humanly possible."

• U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru
• Peruvian Embassy in Washington

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