CIA personnel aboard a U.S. surveillance plane that helped target an aircraft carrying American missionaries over Peru objected strongly when a Peruvian fighter jet was given authorization to shoot down the flight before ascertaining who was on board, a U.S. intelligence official said yesterday.
The three-member American crew, contracted by the CIA as part of U.S. anti-drug efforts in Latin America, repeatedly appealed to a Peruvian air force liaison on board their flight for additional measures to check the identity of the suspect plane and force it to land peacefully, the official said.
But the liaison refused to relay the request to the Peruvian fighter jet that had been notified by the CIA crew about the suspicious plane and was quickly closing on it, the intelligence official said. An American missionary, Veronica "Roni" Bowers, and her 7-month-old daughter Charity were killed when the air force jet shot down the single-engine Cessna 185 owned by the U.S.-based Association of Baptists for World Evangelism.
"The U.S. crew repeatedly expressed their concern that the nature of the aircraft had not been determined," the official said. "Despite serious concerns raised by the U.S. crew, shoot-down was ordered by the Peruvian air force. . . . They [the Americans] were surprised when the firing began because it happened so quickly."
The official said the Peruvian air force had failed to abide by standard rules of engagement, which U.S. officials have previously cited to allay concerns in Washington that innocent civilians could be shot from the sky with American assistance. He said an initial review indicates that Peruvian officers did not follow several procedures, which include making visual contact with a suspicious plane, trying to motion it to land and firing warning shots, that had been established by both countries to govern how Peru would use U.S. radar and other assistance.
"It appears the stages were very compressed, rushed and not fully complied with," he said.
The surviving missionaries were flown yesterday from Peru to the United States. Jim Bowers, whose wife and daughter were killed, arrived with his 6-year-old son, Cory, in Garner, N.C. The plane's pilot, 41-year-old missionary Kevin Donaldson, underwent surgery last night in Reading, Pa., for gunshot wounds to both legs. Donaldson had brought the crippled plane to a safe landing on the Amazon River, where the survivors were rescued by villagers.
The Peruvian government, which said Saturday that its military had followed standard procedures during the incident, has not yet provided its own public account. But Foreign Minister Javier Perez de Cuellar said in Quebec City that "the Peruvian authorities are responsible and we regret what happened." Speaking in an interview at the end of the 34-nation Summit of the Americas, Perez de Cuellar said he had expressed "condolences" to President Bush.
Bush, before departing Quebec, said at a news conference that "our government is involved with helping, and a variety of agencies are involved with helping our friends in South America identify airplanes that might be carrying illegal drugs." He said that as a result of the missionary shoot-down, U.S. surveillance flights had been suspended "until we get to the bottom of the situation . . . to understand what went wrong in this terrible tragedy."
Spokesmen for the Baptist missionary group, headquartered in Pennsylvania, repeated their insistence that Donaldson had filed a flight plan for the mission. The plane took off Thursday from the northern Peruvian city of Iquitos, flew to a small town on Peru's border with Colombia and Brazil, and was returning to Iquitos. They said the plane received no warning before being fired upon.
Although the American crew aboard the surveillance tracking plane tried to persuade the Peruvian liaison officer to intervene to slow the confrontation, they did not contact the fighter pilot directly, the U.S. official said. He said American personnel, by agreement, are not in the Peruvian chain of command and have no authority to direct Peruvian operations.
The Americans aboard the surveillance plane, however, did contact the U.S. Embassy in Lima by radio to urge that the fighter jet hold off firing because of doubts about the identity of the small aircraft, according to U.S. officials familiar with these communications. That conversation, conducted in English, was overheard by a U.S. Customs Service P-3 surveillance aircraft that was flying on an unrelated mission in northern Colombia at the time, as well as by the U.S. military, sources said.
The U.S. plane videotaped the confrontation and recorded all its radio transmissions. But U.S. officials said yesterday they were not prepared to disclose the tapes or transcripts.
According to the account provided by the American intelligence official, the U.S. surveillance plane, a twin-engine Cessna Citation V owned by the Department of Defense, notified its base at 9:43 a.m. Friday that radar had detected an unidentified aircraft crossing from Peru into Brazilian airspace. The surveillance plane reported a second sighting 12 minutes later when the aircraft reentered Peru. Following standard procedures, the Peruvian air force officer in the jungle city of Pucallpa checked whether the plane was on an approved flight plan but was unable to find one.
While the Peruvian air force launched an A-37B jet to intercept the unidentified aircraft, the Peruvian officer aboard the CIA plane tried to contact it on three different radio frequencies in Spanish, the U.S. official said. He said the American crew heard the officer attempting to make contact but no response was received.
Under the rules of engagement, the Peruvian jet should have then tried to make visual contact using internationally recognized procedures and motion the plane to land for inspection.
But instead, the Peruvian officer on the U.S. plane directed the fighter pilot to move to "phase two," which ordinarily involves firing warning shots, and then quickly on to the potentially lethal "stage three." The American personnel did not see tracer fire that would have served as warning shots nor hear any reference to it during the radio communication between the Peruvian liaison officer and the fighter pilot, the official said.
As the Peruvian fighter prepared to open fire on the small plane, the American crew objected, asking the liaison officer to have the fighter pilot attempt to see its tail number. The fighter pilot radioed the tail number back to the liaison officer aboard the American plane but he did not call it to the ground command for verification. At 10:43 a.m., over the Americans' objections, the Peruvian air force authorized that the plane be shot down, the U.S. official said.
The U.S. plane remained about a mile from the missionary aircraft during most of the the incident and the crew was able to see what transpired but did not come close enough to determine who was aboard, the official said. Jim Bowers told family members that the U.S. plane circled above the crash site after the shoot-down.
Hank Scheltema, the group's aviation director, said the incident had occurred because the Peruvian Air Force was trying to communicate with the missionary plane on a military frequency while Donaldson, the pilot of the downed aircraft, had been talking with air traffic controllers on a civilian frequency.
"He was saying to the tower: 'They're going to kill us! They're killing us! They're killing us!' And he tried to communicate [with the Peruvian Air Force plane] but they were on different frequencies," Scheltema said. Scheltema spoke with Donaldson after his arrival in Philadelphia but did not say how Donaldson knew that the air force had been using a different frequency.
After Bowers arrived yesterday at his brother Daniel's white frame house on the outskirts of Raleigh, he and his son were comforted by relatives. Jim's mother, Wilma Bowers, stroked her grandson's blond hair and spoke softly to him on the porch as he sat in her lap before trotting off to play ball with his cousins, Daniel's young son and daughter, on the big green lawn.
From the house Bowers issued a statement saying: "I have heard various reports about the events surrounding the shooting down of our mission plane. I am trusting that the publicity will eventually agree with what I know to be the truth."
The CIA is one of several military and civilian agencies that participate in a ground, air and communications intercept program as part of the U.S. anti-drug effort in South America. Focused primarily on the Andean countries that are the center of cocaine production, those efforts are coordinated through the Joint Interagency Task Force based in Key West, Fla.
Peru has long been a major center of cultivation of coca, the raw material of cocaine. Harvested and partially processed into paste, the coca is exported to Colombia, where it is turned into cocaine powder and exported to the United States. The principal goal of U.S. anti-drug efforts in Peru has long been to intercept the small planes that fly coca paste over the border.
U.S. officials frequently cite the success of the air interdiction program -- in which the Peruvians have brought down at least 30 planes since 1995 -- as the principal reason for a 65 percent decline in Peruvian coca production and drug exports during the 1990s. But overall cocaine production in the region has increased as much of Peru's coca cultivation has moved to Colombia.
The air interdiction efforts are authorized under a 1994 intelligence sharing agreement between the United States and both Colombia and Peru, although the current Colombian government has largely abandoned a shoot-down policy.
As explained by current and former U.S. officials, information on any plane flying through the region is collected by high-flying U.S. reconnaissance aircraft -- either P-3 Orions or AWACS -- ground-based radar, signals and human intelligence. If a plane is deemed suspect, a U.S. air-radar tracker is sent into the sky to pinpoint its location.
The Defense Department, the U.S. Customs Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the State Department's international narcotics bureau, the CIA and other agencies all fly tracking missions depending, as one official put it, on "who is around on a given day and what planes are available."