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Private firms aid U.S. covert work

Critics say private military contractors on anti-drug and other missions are not held accountable.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001

Critics say private military contractors on anti-drug and other missions are not held accountable.

More than a week after a small plane was shot down over Peru, killing an American missionary and her baby, the tragedy remains rife with questions. Among them: Exactly who was on board the surveillance plane that targeted the civilian flight?

Were they employees of DynCorp, a major CIA contractor? Or were they employees of yet another company, with even less accountability to Congress and the American public?

Outrage over the deaths has focused new attention on the U.S. government's use of "outsourcing" -- hiring private companies like DynCorp to do a vast array of jobs, including such dangerous, controversial missions as eradicating the South American drug trade.

"These private military contractors are not held accountable for their actions," said Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill. "They may draw the U.S. deep into regional conflicts and civil wars."

Last week, Schakowsky filed a bill that would ban the federal government from hiring private companies or individuals to carry out military, law enforcement, armed rescue or related operations in Peru, Colombia and other Andean countries.

The bill stems in part from Schakowsky's frustration at being unable to learn much about the U.S. role in the Peruvian incident, including who was on the surveillance plane that initially may have mistaken the missionary flight for a drug-smuggling operation.

"She talked with officials at the CIA . . . and they flat out refused to give us any information," said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for the Chicago-area representative.

Roni Bowers, 35, and her baby daughter were killed and the pilot seriously injured when their plane was shot down April 20 by a Peruvian military jet. According to U.S. officials, the jet fired at the missionaries' plane despite warnings from Americans running surveillance in the area.

Reports on ABC and CBS originally said the pilot and others on the surveillance plane were employees of DynCorp, a Virginia-based company that is a major player in the war on drugs.

DynCorp subsequently issued a terse statement "clarifying" the reports: "DynCorp does not provide surveillance services under this program and was not involved in any manner in the incident that occurred in Peru."

However, critics say the statement's phrasing does not rule out the possibility that the crew of the surveillance plane worked for a company under subcontract to DynCorp.

"Clinton could have written that statement -- you have to phrase it carefully," said Wayne Madsen of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest organization in Washington D.C.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young, who is often privy to classified information as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, said none of DynCorp's own employees was on the surveillance flight. But the Largo Republican said "no comment -- I can't discuss that" when asked if the crew included DynCorp subcontractors.

Regardless of whom they worked for, there is no evidence the Americans did anything wrong. In fact, as U.S. officials review audio and video tapes of the incident, there is evidence the American crew members did all the could to keep the Peruvian jet from attacking the missionary plane.

However, critics of outsourcing say the mystery over who was on the flight underscores the problems in hiring private companies for sensitive jobs.

"Even when the CIA or other government agencies are engaged in secret activities, no one in the public can say, "Is our money being wisely spent, is this the kind of project we want to do?' and hold people accountable if they don't follow our requirements," says Kit Gage, director of the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation.

"Then, when a lot of activities get outsourced, you've even further attenuated any possibility of public accountability."

Gage said she was outraged by reports that the U.S. crew on the surveillance flight did not speak Spanish and had a hard time communicating with a Peruvian officer aboard.

"When you have international incidents like this that are severely compromised by the simple fact of them not speaking Spanish, that shows the whole problem of who's contracting whom to do what," Gage said. "Then there's the concern, does the Peruvian government take less seriously these folks because they're mere CIA contractors? It makes accountability and responsibility all the harder -- it just completely breaks down."

Although most Americans have never heard of it, DynCorp has parlayed government outsourcing into a $2-billion-a-year business.

Founded in 1946, the company has nearly 23,000 employees in all 50 states and 33 countries. It does contract work for dozens of federal agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among its myriad jobs are collecting child support payments in North Carolina and helping with a national survey to measure contamination levels in fish.

But DynCorp's most controversial role has been in foreign operations, including the $7.5-billion "Plan Colombia" effort to wipe out the major sources of U.S.-bound cocaine.

Under a U.S. State Department contract purportedly worth $600-million, DynCorp employs pilots and others who work closely with the governments of Bolivia, Colombia and Peru.

In Colombia, DynCorp primarily helps the national police force in the aerial spraying of herbicides on coca and poppy crops. In Peru and Bolivia, it provides "aviation support" for drug eradication and interdiction, the company says in an "informational backgrounder."

It can be dangerous work. In the past few years, three U.S. contract personnel have died while flying spray planes over Colombian territory. And in February, DynCorp pilots on a search-and-rescue mission for a downed Colombian police helicopter were caught in a firefight with leftist rebels. The incident raised concern over whether the United States was getting dragged into Colombia's brutal guerrilla war.

DynCorp is close-mouthed about its operations, nor is it under any requirement to discuss them. And therein lies the problem, critics say.

"This is how the CIA has always handled this stuff -- give it to contractors who are away from Freedom of Information requests, auditors, inspector generals," says Madsen of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "They don't have to come under any kind of microscope."

-- Times researchers Cathy Wos and Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

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