U.S. lawmakers are trying to force the government to stop hiring U.S. companies for dangerous counternarcotics missions in South America.
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 anti-drug 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 operations.
“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 US$1.3 billion anti-drug package.
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 US$119,305 a year, compared with US$45,000 for contractors hired by Colombian National Police. The State Department also must pay higher costs for housing and security.
Dyncorp has a US$200 million, five-year contract with the department, company spokeswoman Janet Wineriter said.