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A Modest Proposal for the Next Drug-War Shootdown

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THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION and federal agencies are still struggling with the backlash from the shootdown by Peruvian jet fighters of a Cessna airplane in which five Americans were traveling. Everybody regrets the fact that a CIA surveillance plane notified Peruvian jets that a plane carrying Baptist missionaries might contain drug traffickers. But unless the U.S. government is to suffer severe repercussions from similar drug-war debacles in the future, a few simple reforms must be made:

•   In order to maintain public confidence, clear guidelines must be established to prevent U.S. government agencies from changing the official story of events more than once every 24 hours during the first week after any such controversy. The finger-pointing between the CIA, the Pentagon, and other agencies distracted attention from the overarching point that any fault for the killings must rest entirely with the government of Peru.

•   Minor tactical adjustments can avoid major PR problems. Some commentators have fixated on the fact that Peruvian jets repeatedly strafed the survivors as their burning plane floated in the Amazon River. The U.S. government, which provides approximately $100 million in anti-drug aid to Peru each year, should insist that Peruvian jets no longer machine-gun crash survivors in any locale likely to have many witnesses. If the same “cleanup” task is conducted by Peruvian army units using rifles equipped with silencers, the likelihood of subsequent adverse publicity will be reduced by at least 90 percent. The United States has a right to insist that foreign governments show at least a modicum of respect for the sensibilities of the American public in how U.S. tax dollars are spent.

•   U.S. drug agencies should take a page from the Pentagon playbook during the glory days of the Vietnam War to help Americans understand that we are winning. Commentators are obsessing on the fact that two American citizens got killed in an anti-drug action. However, hundreds — if not thousands — of innocent Latin American civilians have been killed in the drug war in the last decade. U.S. drug policy still has a ratio of foreign kills to U.S. casualties that should be the envy of any military planner.

•   The U.S. government has been shockingly slow in putting front-and-center the suffering of the other victims of this tragedy. Not until four days after the shootdown did the Washington Post dutifully report the statement of an unnamed U.S. government official that the American crew of the CIA spotter plane “is absolutely destroyed by this. They didn’t want it to happen. They didn’t have control over it anymore.” Why didn’t the government get this statement out prominently in the media within 24 hours after Veronica Bowers and her infant daughter were killed? And why is the government withholding details of the agony of the CIA contractors’ wives and children who have been afflicted by seeing endless one-sided news reports about the travails of Bowers’s husband and surviving son? For good measure, Americans should also be told about the number of mosquito bites suffered by CIA contractors while working in the jungle.

•   The U.S. government has also been surprisingly laggard in announcing the appointment of a “blue-ribbon independent panel” including one or two pliable former U.S. senators to consult with federal agencies. These independent panels are vital for maintaining public faith in government, since they almost inevitably issue an exhaustive report proving that no government official is to blame for anything that happened. (Note: This tactic worked very well after Waco.)

•   In the future, U.S. government officials must move expeditiously to cast suspicions on the victims of government action. It would have been a simple matter for one of the unnamed U.S. government officials who fill the media’s stories on this incident like a subway rush-hour crushload to raise the issue of whether any Baptist in the United States has ever used cocaine. Simply having an authoritative government figure (all unnamed government officials seem authoritative) pose the question would have done wonders to raise doubts whether the missionaries’ version of events was as squeaky clean as everyone assumed. There would be no need to offer any evidence because the media rarely demands proof of the wrongdoing of victims of government action.

•   U.S. agencies need to have a contingency plan ready to roll before the next disaster strikes. Some of the television footage of the survivors and the dead mother may cause some Americans to have doubts about the drug war. Such coverage could easily be countered by a bevy of high-profile domestic busts (including at least one Hollywood star and one overpaid athlete superstar), the appointment of a new drug czar who promises to finally “get tough” with drug users, and the emergency printing and distribution of 10 million “Just Say No!” buttons to schoolchildren. If these simple guidelines are assiduously followed, there will be far less danger that future fiascoes with high-profile victims will disrupt the smooth functioning of federal policies and programs.


But seriously, folks …

It is amazing how fast this drug-war atrocity dropped from the radar screens of the U.S. media. Now, a few months later, the issue is almost as much a forgotten footnote as the scandals from Bill Clinton’s first six months in office.

Drug warriors like to stress that anti-drug programs target the guilty and it is only an accident — and a rare one, at that — when innocent people are killed.

Yet it is apparently routine policy for Peruvian jets to strafe the survivors of a shootdown. The Orlando Sentinel noted, “Hundreds of villagers watched as at least one of the air force planes fired at the disabled Cessna and the survivors as they floated in the Amazon River.”

When German U-boats would rise to the surface and machine-gun the survivors of a merchant marine ship they had torpedoed, Americans rightly considered the conduct to be a war crime. But there is no difference between what the Nazi U-boats did in 1942 and what U.S.-bankrolled fighter jets are doing in 2001.

The policy of automatic shootdowns of suspected drug planes was intensely controversial within the U.S. government when the policy was first adapted in the mid 1990s. The State Department advocated a policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in case tragedies with innocent victims occurred — a policy that would allow the United States to hide behind a fig leaf. And as long as the only people being killed were not U.S. citizens, the U.S. government succeeded — at least on the PR front.

After the identity of the victims became known, the U.S. embassy in Peru put out a statement stressing,

As part of an agreement between the U.S. and Peru, U.S. radar provides tracking information on planes suspected of smuggling illegal drugs in the region to the Peruvian air force. U.S. government tracking aircraft … do not participate in any way in the shooting down of suspect planes.

Perhaps the U.S. embassy believes that since the U.S. surveillance plane did not specifically tell the Peruvian fighters to kill the mother and daughter, the United States is blameless. The U.S. government is pretending to have “clean hands” simply because it paid someone else to pull the trigger. This is the kind of argument that would fare poorly if used by someone accused of conspiracy to commit murder.

And there is no reason to expect the U.S. government-funded drug warriors to be anything but the equivalent of Keystone Kops with multiple .50 caliber machine guns. U.S. government officials sought to cover their tails in the week after the shootdown by stressing that the three CIA contract employees flying in the surveillance plane repeatedly sought to persuade the Peruvian attaché flying with them to call off the jets — to cancel the instructions to shoot down the plane. To no avail.

There was a problem. The CIA wizards were not fluent in Spanish — and the communication gap helped prevent the message from getting through.

Admittedly, the CIA has many problems and issues to keep track of. However, Spanish has been the dominant language in Peru for the past 300 or 400 years. If the CIA cannot even post people who speak the language to the narco-war-zones, what chance is there that its contract employees will be competent in other ways? After all, with all the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on the drug war, can’t they spare a few hundred for Spanish lessons for CIA officials operating in Latin America?

The killing of the innocent mother and child is another warning sign of the total irresponsibility of the wizards directing America’s drug war. Unless heads roll because of this debacle — in the sense that people are fired, careers are ruined, and charges of gross incompetence or gross negligence are filed — Americans can safely assume that the next such shootdown of innocent people will cause even less of a ripple in the media.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.