Friday, November 21, 2008

C.I.A. Withheld Data in Peru Plane Crash Inquiry

November 21, 2008

WASHINGTON — An internal investigation by the Central Intelligence Agency has found that the agency withheld crucial information from federal investigators who spent years trying to determine whether C.I.A. officers committed crimes related to the accidental downing of a missionary plane in Peru in 2001.

The August 2008 report by John L. Helgerson, the C.I.A.’s inspector general, could lead the Justice Department to reopen its investigation into the shooting, examining in particular whether senior C.I.A. officers obstructed justice or lied to Congress by burying details about the episode and the C.I.A.’s broader counternarcotics program.

A C.I.A. surveillance aircraft mistakenly identified the plane as a drug-smuggling aircraft, and a Peruvian military jet shot it down, killing an American missionary and her 7-month-old daughter. The Justice Department closed its investigation into the matter in 2005, declining to prosecute agency officers for any actions related to the episode.

But Mr. Helgerson’s report, parts of which were made public on Thursday, said that the Justice Department investigators and Congress were never allowed access to internal C.I.A. reviews that portrayed the downing as one mistake among many in the agency’s counternarcotics program in Peru. The report said the agency routinely authorized interceptions of suspected drug planes “without adequate safeguards to protect against the loss of innocent life.”

The counternarcotics program was begun under President Clinton in 1994. The report said it had operated for years outside legal boundaries set by the White House.

In releasing unclassified parts of the report on Thursday, Representative Peter J. Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said he was asking the Justice Department to consider whether the C.I.A.’s actions after the incident amounted to obstruction of justice. “This is about as ugly as it gets,” said Mr. Hoekstra, who added that the Justice Department had closed its investigation based on a review of “incomplete information.”

The missionary family that was aboard the aircraft when it was shot down came from Mr. Hoekstra’s district in Michigan.

Paul Gimigliano, an agency spokesman, said that Mr. Helgerson’s report had been delivered to the Justice Department, and that Michael V. Hayden, the C.I.A. director, had yet to decide what internal actions to take.

“C.I.A. takes very seriously questions of responsibility and accountability,” Mr. Gimigliano said. “The only accountability process worthy of this agency is one conducted with care, candor and common sense. That’s the single goal here.” A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

The fatal episode occurred in April 2001 over the remote Amazon forest of Peru. The C.I.A. had been operating in the region as part of a joint counternarcotics mission with the Peruvian Air Force, which had the authority to intercept or shoot down planes that did not comply with orders to land. Government reports after the shooting attributed the accident in part to language barriers that prevented the pilot from understanding the orders.

The plane was carrying two missionaries, Veronica Bowers and her husband, James Bowers, their two children, and a pilot. Ms. Bowers’ husband and the couple’s son survived the crash, along with the pilot. Any decision to re-examine the matter could be an early test for the Justice Department under an Obama administration. If the Justice Department determines there was wrongdoing, it may have no choice about whether to pursue a prosecution. At the same time, a lengthy investigation into C.I.A. wrongdoing could immediately chill the relationship between the White House and the spy agency at a time when the C.I.A. is central to the American campaign against terrorism.

According to Mr. Helgerson’s report, C.I.A. officials “within hours” of the downing explained the accident as a one-time mistake in an otherwise sound counternarcotics program.

“In fact, this was not the case,” the report said. It said that the C.I.A. repeatedly misled the White House and Congress between 1995 and 2001 about the Peru operation.

The inspector general’s report said that after the downing of the missionaries’ plane, the C.I.A. had conducted internal reviews “that documented sustained and significant violations of required intercept procedures.” But it said that the agency had denied Congress, the Department of Justice and the National Security Council access to these findings.

Mr. Hoekstra said Thursday that the inspector general’s investigation specifically named C.I.A. officials responsible for the alleged cover-up, but he declined to name those officers. The Justice Department and the C.I.A. inspector general had been investigating the roles played in the incident by the agency’s field officers in Latin America as well as senior officials at the agency’s headquarters in Virginia.

It is also possible that C.I.A. lawyers could face scrutiny if the Justice Department decides to reopen the Peru investigation. The report by Mr. Helgerson says that C.I.A. lawyers from the office of the general counsel “advised agency managers to avoid written products lest they be subject to legal scrutiny” in connection with the downing of the plane.

The intensity of Mr. Helgerson’s investigations of this and other C.I.A. programs rankled many in the C.I.A.’s clandestine branch, as those officers under suspicion saw legal bills mount.

Earlier this year, Mr. Helgerson agreed to a series of changes to inspector general investigations, including the creation of an ombudsman position to hear complaints from C.I.A. officers being scrutinized by the inspector general.

Before the Justice Department decides whether to reopen a criminal investigation, prosecutors are likely to carefully review the inspector general’s report to determine whether the allegations are credible.

If the criminal inquiry into possible obstruction of justice is reopened, the case would probably be handled by the office of the United States attorney in the District of Colombia, which conducted the initial criminal investigation.

Asked Thursday why he waited until now to release the report, Mr. Hoekstra explained that it took several weeks for the document to make its way to Capitol Hill and that this was the first week members were back in session since it arrived.

David Johnston contributed reporting.