The CIA, DynCorp, and the Shoot Down in Peru

Among the five cases of CIA cover ups currently being investigated by the U.S. House Intelligence Committee is the April 20, 2001 shooting down of a small plane in Peru, resulting in the death of a Baptist missionary from Michigan and her seven-month-old daughter. The CIA inspector general has already concluded that the CIA improperly concealed information about the incident.

Intelligence Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky, who is leading the investigation, says she hasn’t ruled out referrals to the Justice Department for criminal prosecutions if evidence surfaces that intelligence officials broke the law. On the other hand, she hasn’t guaranteed that the true story will ever be released since the Committee’s report of its investigation will be classified.

So what happened in Peru and why? At first, the CIA employed its usual tactics: denial and deflection of blame. The first version of the "official story" fed to the press was that Peruvian authorities had ordered the attack on their own, over the pleas of CIA "contract pilots" who initially spotted the plane. But that didn’t hold up for long, since Peruvian pilots involved in a program supposedly designed to intercept drug flights, insisted that nothing was shot down without U.S. approval.

Innocent planes were sometimes attacked, but most of them were low-flying small planes that didn’t file flight plans and had no radios or instrumentation. This plane maintained regular radio contact and did file a plan. Still, even after it crash-landed, the Peruvians continued to strafe it, perhaps in an attempt to ignite the plane’s fuel and eliminate the evidence.

RC-12 spy plane maintianed by DynCorp

"I think it has to do with Plan Colombia and the coming war," said Celerino Castillo, who had previously worked in Peru for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). "The CIA was sending a clear message to all non-combatants to clear out of the area." The flight was heading to Iquitos, which "is at the heart of everything the CIA is doing right now," he added. "They don’t want any witnesses."

Timing also may have played a part. The shoot-down occurred on the opening day of the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. Uruguay’s President Jorge Ibanez, who had proposed the worldwide legalization of drugs just weeks before, was expected to make a high-profile speech on his proposal at the gathering. The downing of a drug smuggling plane at this moment, near territory held by Colombia’s FARC rebels, could help to defuse Uruguay’s message and reinforce the image of the insurgents as drug smugglers.

The most crucial wrinkle was the involvement of a private military company, DynCorp, which was active in Colombia and Bolivia under large contracts with various U.S. agencies. The day after the incident, the ABC News website reported that, according to "senior administration officials," the crew of the surveillance plane that first identified the aircraft "was hired by the CIA from DynCorp." Within two days all references to DynCorp were removed from ABC’s website. A week later, the New York Post claimed the crew actually worked for Aviation Development Corporation, allegedly a CIA proprietary company.

State Department officials refused to talk on the record about DynCorp’s activities in South America. According to DynCorp’s State Department contract, the firm had received at least $600 million over the previous few years for training, drug interdiction, search and rescue (which included combat), air transport of equipment and people, and reconnaissance in the region—and that was only what they put on paper. It also operated government aircraft and provided all manner of personnel, particularly for Plan Colombia. Will we ever find out what really happened in Peru? Not likely, since it involves a private military contractor (PMC) that is beyond the reach of congressional accountability.

DynCorp began in 1946 as the employee-owned air cargo business California Eastern Airways, flying in supplies for the Korean War. This and later government work led to charges that it was a CIA front company. Whatever the truth, it became a leading PMC, hiring former soldiers and police officers to implement U.S. foreign policy without Congressional oversight.

The push to privatize war gained traction during the first Bush administration. According to a Mother Jones investigation, after the first Gulf War, the Pentagon, then headed by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, paid a Halliburton subsidiary nearly $9 million to study how PMCs could support U.S. soldiers in combat zones. Cheney subsequently became CEO of Halliburton. Brown & Root, later known as Halliburton KBR, won billions to construct and run military bases, some in secret locations.

In early 1990, one of DynCorp’s earliest "police" contracts involved the protection of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and, after he was ousted, provided the "technical advice" that brought military officers involved in that coup into the Haiti’s National Police. Despite this dodgy record, in 2002 DynCorp won the contract to protect another new president, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai. By then, it was a top information technology (IT) federal contractor specializing in computer systems development and providing the government with aviation services, general military management, and security expertise.

So far, DynCorp has avoided the kind of public scandal that surrounds Blackwater. In Ecuador, where it has developed military logistics centers and coordinated "anti-terror" police training, the exposure of a secret covenant it signed with the Aeronautics Industries Directorate of the Ecuadorian Air Force briefly threatened to make waves. According to a November 2003 exposé in Quito’s El Comercio, the arrangement, hidden from the National Defense Council, made DynCorp’s people part of the U.S. diplomatic mission.

In Colombia, DynCorp’s coca eradication and search-and-rescue missions led to controversial pitched battles with rebels. U.S. contract pilots flew Black Hawk helicopters carrying Colombian police officers who raked the countryside with machine gun fire to protect the missions against attacks. According to investigative reporter Jason Vest, DynCorp employees were also implicated in narcotics trafficking. But such stories didn’t get far and, in any case, DynCorp’s "trainers" have ignored congressional rules, including those that restrict the U.S. from aiding military units linked to human rights abuses.

In 2003, DynCorp won a multimillion-dollar contract to build a private police force in post-Saddam Iraq, with some of the funding diverted from an anti-drug program for Afghanistan. In 2004, the State Department further expanded DynCorp’s role as a global U.S. surrogate with a $1.75 billion, 5-year contract to provide law enforcement personnel for civilian policing operations in "post-conflict areas" around the world. That March, the company also got an Army contract to support helicopters sold to foreign countries. The work, described as "turnkey" services, includes program management, logistics support, maintenance and aircrew training, aircraft maintenance and refurbishment, repair and overhaul of aircraft components and engines, airframe and engine upgrades, and the production of technical publications.

The U.S. government downplays its use of mercenaries, which could undermine current efforts to find out about CIA activities that have been concealed from Congress. Private contractors perform almost every function essential to military operations, a situation the UK’s Financial Times called in 2003 the "creeping privatization of the business of war." By 2004, the Pentagon employed more than 700,000 private contractors. Who knows how high that figure has climbed since then.

How did it happen? In 1969, the U.S. Army had about 1.5 million active duty soldiers. By 1992, the figure had been cut by half. Since the mid-1990s, however, the U.S. has mobilized militarily to intervene in several significant conflicts, and a corporate "foreign legion" has filled the gap between foreign policy imperatives and what a downsized, increasingly over-stretched military can provide.

Use of high technology equipment feeds the process. Private companies have technical capabilities that the military needs. Contractors maintain the stealth bombers and Predator unmanned drones used in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some military equipment is specifically designed to be operated and maintained by private companies.

In Britain, the debate over military privatization has been public since the activities of the UK company Sandline in Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea embarrassed the government in the late 1990s. But no country has clear policies to regulate PMCs and the limited oversight that does exist rarely works. In the U.S., they have largely escaped notice, except when U.S. contract workers in conflict zones are killed or go way over the line, as in the case of Blackwater.

When the federal government becomes dependent on unaccountable, private companies like DynCorp and Blackwater (now called Xe Services) for so many key security services, as well as for military logistics, management, strategy, expertise and "training," fundamental elements of U.S. defense have been outsourced. And the details of that relationship are matters that the intelligence community will fight long and hard to keep out of public view.


Greg Guma is an author, editor, and former CEO of Pacifica Radio Network. His books include The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do,and Passport to Freedom: A Guide for World Citizens.