Pubdate: Mon, 07 May 2001
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2001 Associated Press
Author: Ken Guggenheim


WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers are trying to force the government to stop
hiring U.S. companies for dangerous counternarcotics missions in South

Two proposals one to phase out the use of contractors in Colombia, the
other to end it entirely in the entire Andean region were introduced
recently in Congress.

The measures were prompted by concerns about the role of contractors
flying State Department-sponsored drug eradication missions in
Colombia. But those worries intensified after the Peruvian Air Force
on April 20 shot down a plane carrying American missionaries that a
CIA-hired surveillance crew had identified as a possible drug flight.

Lawmakers are angry that the CIA has refused to publicly identify the
contractor or provide details of its work.

''I think it really underscored the need for transparency and
accountability,'' said Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., a member of the
House International Relations Committee.

With bipartisan support, Delahunt last Wednesday amended the
committee's version of the State Department authorization bill to say
that the government should try to phase out the use of U.S. companies
for antidrug missions in Colombia. Responsibility would be transferred
to Colombian security forces.

Delahunt's amendment also would require annual reports identifying the
U.S. businesses hired for the missions and providing information about
their pay, purpose and the risks they face.

A bill introduced last month by Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat, would
effectively ban the use of private businesses for counternarcotics

''I think the American taxpayers are funding a secret war that could
suck us into a Vietnam-like conflict,'' she said.

The State Department's counternarcotics bureau said it could not
comment on the Delahunt and Schakowsky proposals. It noted that the
bureau's director, Assistant Secretary of State Rand Beers, was in
Peru leading the team investigating the missionary plane shooting.

At a House Government Reform subcommittee meeting last week,
Schakowsky, one of the most liberal lawmakers, and Rep. Dan Burton, a
Republican, one of the most conservative, found common ground in their
outrage over the little information released about the missionary
plane incident.

The small aircraft had been spotted by a surveillance plane operated
by a CIA contractor, which identified it as a possible drug flight and
alerted Peru's air force. U.S. officials say the crew later realized
it was likely an innocent flight, but couldn't stop Peruvians from
shooting it down. An American woman and her infant daughter were killed.

The CIA has declined to identify the contractor. News reports have
said it is Aviation Development Corp. of Montgomery, Alabama. Company
President Lex Thistlethwaite did not return messages seeking comment.

Anti-drug agencies rely on contractors for a variety of
counternarcotic purposes in the Andes. In some cases, they are needed
for short-term missions in which it doesn't pay for the United States
to hire new employees, said Dennis Jett, a former ambassador to Peru.

But there's another reason, Jett noted.

''In terms of politicians, there's less sensitivity if there were a
fatality for a contractor than a man in uniform or a woman in
uniform,'' he said.

This has been seen as a big consideration in Colombia, where the State
Department uses Reston, Virginia-based Dyncorp to fly fumigation
missions over fields of coca and poppy, the raw materials for cocaine
and heroin.

''Congressional attitude and public attitudes toward not getting our
military involved clearly point you to contractors,'' said Myles
Frechette, a former ambassador to Colombia.

Dyncorp employees have come under fire while flying eradication
missions in territory controlled by leftist guerrillas. On Feb. 18,
contractors flew by helicopter into a gun battle in southern Colombia
and rescued the crew of a downed police helicopter.

Delahunt said his proposal would help avoid ''mission creep'' _ the
gradual escalation of U.S. involvement in Colombia by having
Colombians take on more anti-drug missions.

The State Department says its policy has always been to help prepare
Colombians to take over the eradication missions, some of which have
been handled by Colombian National Police.

In 1998, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota began developing a plan to phase
out the use of contractors, Congress' General Accounting Office
reported last year. But it said the plan was never approved and was
set aside following the approval of the dlrs 1.3 billion anti-drug

A State Department internal audit last year noted that it is much more
expensive to rely on contractors instead of Colombians. It said a
Dyncorp pilot receives dlrs 119,305 a year, compared with dlrs 45,000
for contractors hired by Colombian National Police. The State
Department also must pay higher costs for housing and security.

Dyncorp has a dlrs 200 million, five-year contract with the
department, company spokeswoman Janet Wineriter said.
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