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Congress investigating 'friendly fire' incident over Iraq

wreckage September 19, 1996
Web posted at: 11:00 p.m. EDT

From CNN Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A congressional subcommittee is investigating the Pentagon's handling of a 1994 "friendly fire" incident in which two Army helicopters were mistakenly shot down over Iraq, CNN has learned.

The incident occurred on April 14, 1994, when two U.S. F-15s on patrol in northern Iraq spotted two U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters. Thinking they were Iraqi copters violating the no-fly zone, the F-15s shot them down with air-to-air missiles, killing 26 people aboard the helicopters.

A subsequent Air Force investigation uncovered dozens of mistakes and recommended six officers for court-martial, but no one was ever convicted.

Sources tell CNN that Congress has been stymied in its attempts to talk to senior Air Force officers involved in the dispensing of justice.

Letters obtained by CNN indicate Congress wants to know why the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations wrote twice to Defense Secretary William Perry last month asking to interview under oath six current or retired Air Force officers involved in the judicial process, including four generals.

The Pentagon's terse refusal came last week from Deputy Secretary John White, who replied that Congress has "no judicial function or review authority" and said the request "undercuts ... efforts to demonstrate military justice is fair..."

But sources said that's just what congressional investigators are looking into -- whether the military system of having officers investigate each other results in accountability or cover-up.

The congressional probe is being fueled by the families of the victims, who feel that criminal negligence was excused -- in part because of an old-boy network that protected the fighter pilots and their commanders.

According to the unidentified sources, congressional investigators are looking at whether evidence was suppressed, or if any Air Force officers tried to influence the outcome of the trials.

The Pentagon says Congress has a right to look at how the friendly fire accident was investigated, but canšt review the verdicts in individual cases or the actions of military judges and prosecutors.

The Senate committee is now considering whether to formally subpoena the officers it wants to question, the sources said.

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