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U.S. seeks to resume drug-interdiction flights

From Andrea Koppel and Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States has drafted proposals on how to resume aerial drug interdiction flights over Colombia and Peru suspended last year after a missionary plane was mistakenly shot down, a State Department official said Monday.

Missionary Veronica Bowers, 35, and her infant daughter, Charity, were killed when the Cessna they were flying in on April 20, 2001, was mistaken for a drug-trafficking aircraft and shot down during a joint U.S.-Peru drug-interdiction program. Her husband Jim and son Cory Bowers, also passengers aboard the plane, were injured in the incident, as was pilot Kevin Donaldson.

An investigation involving the government of Peru and the State Department, the Pentagon and the CIA found the incident should never have occurred, blaming lax procedures in the drug-interception program and poor communication and language barriers between pilots from both countries.

The United States and Peru stopped the anti-drug running effort following the accident.

The senior official said the new proposals and safety procedures were largely based on recommendations in a report by former Ambassador to Colombia Morris Busby, who thoroughly examined the aerial interdiction program following the accident. He added there would be a greater effort to have "clarity in each step of the process," so that miscommunications like the one that led to the shooting down of the Bowers' plane didn't happen again.

Once primarily run by the CIA, the new program would be run by the State Department, the official said.

"This is now going to be an overt program," the official said, adding that after the shootdown of Bowers' plane revealed the nature of the program, "it's clear it wasn't going to be covert" any longer.

The program used to have U.S. pilots manning the flights with host nation monitors aboard. The new proposal calls for the host nation, namely Colombia or Peru, to supply the aircraft with U.S. monitors on board. The official said the U.S. would outfit some of the foreign governments' planes with the surveillance equipment needed to conduct the flight and could transfer possession of some of its own planes to Colombian or Peruvian ownership.

He added there would be a greater effort to identify areas under the interdiction program and to make sure private pilots in the area knew about the program. Air traffic control tower personnel in the host countries would also be thoroughly briefed, he said.

The new program would also give more authority to U.S. personnel aboard the aircraft conducting surveillance of possible drug flights, giving them a "formal role in the process" of identifying and targeting suspect flights. In the past, the U.S. would make recommendations that had little weight on decisions by the host nation.

But he said that based on the information available, "the host nation makes the decision on whether to proceed" with the shooting down of a potential drug-trafficking flight.

Given that the language barrier was cited as a contributing factor in the shootdown of the Bowers' plane, the official said that both the U.S. and the host nation employees aboard the interdiction aircraft would need to be bilingual.

The State Department would be consulting with Congress and the governments of Peru and Colombia about the new procedures.

The official said training would resume shortly of interdiction teams and the State Department hoped to resume the flights in six months if the training went well.




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