A good litmus test for the integrity of any news organization is the aggressiveness of its reporting on the CIA. And the test has never been more relevant than in the two weeks since April 20, when CIA operatives helped shoot down a missionary plane in Peru. While many journalists concentrated on reconstructing events behind the “tragic” death of an American mother and child, others rejected the U.S. government’s spin and turned to unauthorized sources to piece together the more important back story.
Here’s an example of government spin: The CIA has been putting out the word that it’s OK for its contract employees to help Peruvian drug warriors spot suspicious civilian aircraft and shoot ’em down, as long as the Peruvians take the proper steps to ID the plane and warn its pilot before opening fire. But the truth is that shooting at civilian aircraft is a violation of international law no matter what, and decision makers in the Clinton administration knew they were subverting the law when they cemented the current partnership with Peru in 1994.
While this revelation has been reported by The Washington Post, the AP, and other outlets, it has been glossed over by the CIA-friendly New York Times. Even as The Washington Post reported on April 26 that the Senate intelligence committee had decided to investigate the U.S. role in the drug partnership with Peru, the Times was still pushing the government’s suggestion that the missionary scandal was an “isolated incident” caused by reckless Peruvians, and for which the U.S. government bears no responsibility.
The 1994 debate over Peru’s shoot-down policy is outlined in documents obtained by the National Security Archive, a research group in Washington, D.C. According to the documents, government lawyers warned that “intense criticism” might result if the CIA began helping Peru shoot down suspected drug planes. The critics even foresaw last month’s disaster, warning that “a shoot-down leading to the death of innocent persons would likely be a serious diplomatic embarrassment for the United States.”
Instead of being cautious, the Clinton administration cavalierly created what it called an “exception” to international law, authorizing such shoot-downs in the name of the drug war and giving everyone involved immunity from criminal prosecution. The NSA’s Michael Evans dubs this a classic case of the Clintonites using semantics to dodge responsibility for a legal violation.
According to Evans, “The significance of these documents is that the Clinton administration made a really bad decision back then and it doesn’t seem like they’re getting much heat for it. The details of [the missionary shoot-down] need to be clarified, but very little has been written about the policy itself.”
Another example of government spin is the CIA’s refusal to provide information on the three “contract employees” who spotted the missionaries from a surveillance plane and then helped a Peruvian pilot shoot them down. After the dead-missionary story broke, Illinois congresswoman Janice Schakowsky called the CIA, asking for the names of their three employees. But the agency stonewalled, in response to which she introduced a bill that would bar the U.S. government from using private contractors in the Andean region. Her move was first reported by In These Times on April 27; on April 29, Schakowsky told the St. Petersburg Times, “These private military contractors are not held accountable for their actions.”
The identities of the CIA operatives remain a secret. ABC and CBS reported that they were employees of DynCorp, a Virginia-based company, while on April 27, In These Times and The Miami Herald correctly linked them with Aviation Development Corp., a military contractor apparently operating in secret out of the Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama. The Times piggybacked on the Aviation Development story the next day.
On April 29, The Washington Post published a front-pager that blew the cover off the CIA’s clandestine role in Peru. These were among the Post‘s findings: Contrary to its own PR, the U.S. is a major player in Peru’s drug war, providing ample staff for U.S.-funded radar stations in the Amazon and Peruvian military bases. The partnership to shoot down suspected drug flights was “negotiated directly” with Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru’s former head of intelligenceÑwho is now a fugitive wanted on charges ranging from arms dealing to accepting bribes from drug traffickers. An $8 million drug-war complex in Pucallpa is home to U.S. and Peruvian drug police, Huey helicopters, and half a dozen DynCorp employees, not to mention an untold number of Aviation Development pilots who man the CIA surveillance planes. And then there are the Peruvian pilots, some of whom appear to be on the take (as if the U.S. drug warriors cared about that).
It seems a good bet that the Times will never publish a scoop on the U.S. mercenaries in Colombia and Peru. But on April 29, The Week in Review published a much needed reality check by Tim Weiner. Weiner pointed out what the Times has been missing: that the killing of the missionary is just the tip of the iceberg of the CIA’s historical presence in Latin America. “What is America doing down there, and with whom?” he asked rhetorically. “Who are its friends, and what happens when it befriends them?”
The answers are not pretty. Instead of promoting democracy in Latin America, the CIA has forged alliances with a tiny elite comprised of “businessmen, bankers, dynastic families and generals.” The partnership has been good for the region‘s military and political leaders, who typically get arms deals and “gentle treatment” when they stand accused of corruption and torture. And it’s been good for American military contractors and businessmen. But the CIA and U.S. embassies have done little to save the lives of hundred of thousands of civilians who continue to be tortured and killed by rogue gunmen allied with corrupt military leaders. With friends like that, who needs enemies?
As a final test of credibility, watch how the media covers the subject of the CIA’s relationship with Montesinos. By 1994, when Clinton approved the plan to shoot down drug planes, Montesinos was already notorious in Peru. The L.A. Times reported that, before becoming intelligence chief, he was a lawyer representing drug traffickers, a “reptilian” guy who collected diamond watches, Italian shoes, and flashy young girlfriends. According to The New Yorker, Montesinos kept his top military officers happy by sharing the profits he made from arms sales and from “drug traffickers, who relied on the cooperation of the armed forces to stay in business.”
Last September, shortly after a tape surfaced showing Montesinos bribing a local congressman, he went on the lam, and the U.S. has done little to help track him down. Given that the reptile-in-exile personally launched a U.S. drug initiative now under scrutiny by Congress, an exposé addressing his relationships with the CIA and U.S. diplomats is long overdue.