Pubdate: Thu, 25 May 2017
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2017 The New York Times Company
Author: Charlie Savage


WASHINGTON - The Drug Enforcement Administration misled the public,
Congress and the Justice Department about a 2012 operation in which
commando-style squads of American agents sent to Honduras to disrupt
drug smuggling became involved in three deadly shootings, two
inspectors general said Wednesday.

The D.E.A. said in response that it had shut down the program, the
Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team.

Under the program, known as FAST, squads received military-style
training to combat Taliban-linked opium traffickers in the Afghanistan
war zone. It was expanded to Latin America in 2008 to help fight
transnational drug smugglers, leading to the series of violent
encounters in Honduras in 2012.

A scathing 424-page joint report from the inspectors general of the
Justice and State Departments underscored the risk that Americans
accompanying partner forces on missions in developing countries,
ostensibly as trainers and advisers, sometimes drift into directly
running dangerous operations with little oversight.

The report focused on the first shooting, on a river near the village
of Ahuas on May 11, 2012. A boat collided with a disabled vessel
carrying American and Honduran agents and seized cocaine. Gunfire
erupted, and four people on the boat were killed.

The D.E.A. said at the time that the victims were drug traffickers who
had attacked to try to retrieve the cocaine, but villagers said they
were bystanders. The inspectors general found no evidence to support
the agency's version, disputing a claim that surveillance video showed
evidence that the people on the boat had fired on the disabled vessel.

"Even as information became available to D.E.A. that conflicted with
its initial reporting, including that the passenger boat may have been
a water taxi carrying passengers on an overnight trip," the report
said, "D.E.A. officials remained steadfast - with little credible
corroborating evidence - that any individuals shot by the Hondurans
were drug traffickers who were attempting to retrieve the cocaine."

The inspectors general also rejected the D.E.A.'s insistence at the
time that the operation - as well as two others, in June and July 2012
- - had been led by Honduran law enforcement officials. The review
"concluded this was inaccurate" and said D.E.A. agents "maintained
substantial control."

In the shooting on the river, the report said, a Honduran police
officer did fire a machine gun from a helicopter at the boat, but an
American agent directed him to do so. In one of the later missions,
American agents shot to death smugglers they said had refused to
surrender who they feared might be reaching for weapon.

Indeed, the report said, only D.E.A. agents, not the Hondurans, had
the necessary equipment to command the operation and had direct access
to intelligence. Rather than taking orders from Honduran police, the
agents gave "tactical commands" to the Hondurans during missions.
Accounts of all three shootings, it said, showed that agency leaders
"made the critical decisions and directed the actions taken during the

The D.E.A. refused to cooperate with the State Department as it sought
to investigate what had happened in Ahuas. Michele M. Leonhart, then
the agency's administrator, told the inspector general she had
approved that decision because subordinates told her there was no
precedent for the State Department to investigate a D.E.A. shooting
and it might compromise its investigations, the report said.

But the agency's own review was "little more than a paper exercise" in
which a FAST supervisor conducted no interviews and merely collected
written statements from agents who omitted material facts, the report

The D.E.A. accepted the report's observations and recommendations.

"The loss of life and injuries which occurred between May and July of
2012 were tragic," Mary B. Schaefer, the agency's chief compliance
officer, wrote in a response. "D.E.A. acknowledges that its
pre-mission preparation was not as thorough as it should have been and
that the subsequent investigation lacked the depth and scope necessary
to fully assess what transpired that night."

Ms. Schaefer emphasized that the agency's leadership had turned over
since 2012 and that it had already made "significant changes in this
area over the last five years."

In particular, she disclosed, the agency "has disbanded its FAST
program." It had its last deployment in 2015 and was subsequently
renamed. In March, its remaining personnel were folded into a program
that trains agents for law-enforcement operations on domestic soil.

"The regional response teams and any operational or enforcement
function such as under previous iterations of FAST," she wrote, "have
been dissolved."

The killings in Honduras, along with at least two episodes in 2012 in
which partner countries shot down suspected smuggling planes after
receiving intelligence from the United States about their flight
paths, led to increased media and congressional scrutiny of the D.E.A.
Within a few months, the agency was rethinking and scaling back its
operations, including considering a requirement that FAST agents stay
on helicopters rather than join their trainees in raids.

One of the lawmakers who raised critical questions about the FAST
operations in Latin America after the Ahuas shooting, Senator Patrick
Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, called the new report "nothing less than a
wholesale indictment of the D.E.A. and Honduran police."

Calling for compensation to the families of the victims, he said the
report unmasked "egregious events and conduct" and a subsequent
cover-up that "demeaned the lives of the victims and the reputation of
the United States."

The end of the FAST program was the second time that the D.E.A.
developed and then abandoned a military-style enforcement arm for use
in the Western Hemisphere.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, the D.E.A.'s Operation Snowcap put agents
through military training for temporary assignments in which they
joined with local forces in places like Peru and Bolivia to target
airstrips used for smuggling and to destroy jungle labs. The Clinton
administration shut it down after a plane crash in Peru in 1994 killed
five agents.

During the Bush administration, the D.E.A. assigned Michael A. Braun,
then the agency's head of operations and a veteran of Snowcap, to
develop a similar program for use in Afghanistan. Instead of being
staffed with ordinary agents on temporary assignment, like Snowcap,
FAST was intended to have a permanent role. It was overseen by a
former Navy SEAL member, Richard Dobrich, and many of its agents were
former military members. At one point it had five squads, each with 10

As FAST expanded into Latin America, the State Department negotiated
rules with host countries. Typically, American agents were permitted
to accompany host-nation counterparts on operations and to fire their
weapons in self-defense. Further blurring the lines between
law-enforcement operations and warfare, the FAST squads and their
partner forces were sometimes transported by American military
helicopters on operations, assisted by surveillance aircraft operated
by the State Department.
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