Interruption of effort to down Drug Planes is disclosed.

United States program to shoot down airplanes in Latin America that are suspected of ferrying drugs was suspended this fall for a second time, after the Colombian military forced down a plane and then strafed it without United States approval, current and former American officials have disclosed.

The program, originally operated by the Central Intelligence Agency but turned over to the State Department, had resumed in August after being halted for a little over two years after the mistaken 2001 downing of a plane carrying American missionaries in Peru.

But problems arose almost immediately. During the first air interdiction in early September, according to the officials, the Colombian Air Force forced down a civilian plane and then destroyed it on the ground. The attack was undertaken without authorization from United States personnel monitoring the operation.

American officials said that Colombian officials told them that the plane was completely destroyed. The American officials said they had no indication that drugs were found at the remote site where the plane was forced down. The Colombians said the pilots were seen running from the plane, and then disappeared. American officials said they did not believe there were any casualties in the incident.

The air interdiction program has now been resumed, after a suspension of a few days. But the incident revealed a little-understood feature of the way the new air interdiction program has been structured.

Under the rules negotiated by Colombia and the United States, Colombian air crews are not required to gain approval before firing on suspected drug planes, according to State Department officials. Instead, they are encouraged to seek United States approval, but can proceed even if the Americans disagree with the decision, the officials said.

In the September case, American officials monitoring the interdiction from a ground station in Key West were not certain that it was right to attack. But when a communications problem prevented the United States personnel monitoring the operation from giving their authorization, the Colombians went ahead anyway.

Afterwards, the United States briefly halted the program and privately complained to the Colombian government. The program has since resumed after a review of the incident, but American officials said no planes had been shot down or forced down since.

"The Colombians received a very stern message," said Bobby Charles, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs. "A very clear message was sent by us to them." The Colombians were told that "they had to get serious, or the program would hang in the balance," said Mr. Charles. "That was a pivotal moment."

State Department officials said recently that the problems in the September incident occurred because of communications mix-ups between the Colombian Air Force and the United States Joint Inter-Agency Task Force-South, the American unit monitoring the operation from Key West. Because of a confusion over the proper communication frequencies, the United States personnel were not clearly receiving information about the situation, officials said. The Americans in Key West refused to give their approval because they were not certain what was going on, but the Colombians decided to go ahead anyway because they were afraid the opportunity to down the plane was about to slip away.

The Bush administration suspended the air interdiction program following an April, 2001 incident in Peru, in which Veronica Bowers, an American missionary, and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, were killed when their plane was forced down. Her husband, Jim Bowers, and their son, Cory, survived. The pilot of the small Cessna plane in which they were traveling, Kevin Donaldson, was able to crash-land the plane along the Amazon River despite his own wounds from the attack.

After that incident, the C.I.A. came under heavy fire for its handling of the program, and the agency's director, George J. Tenet, made it clear to the White House that his agency no longer wanted any part of it. The State Department agreed to take it over, and hired an outside contractor to manage it on a day-to-day basis.

So far, the air interdiction program has resumed only in Colombia, although the Bush administration is still considering whether it should be restarted in Peru as well, officials said. Brazil is also considering whether to start its own air interdiction program, but the Bush administration is not planning to provide support for that effort, State Department officials said.

In the past, American officials have defended the air interdiction program, saying that it has had a major impact on cocaine trade patterns in Latin America. Before the missionary plane was shot down, the Peruvian Air Force, working with United States surveillance aircraft, shot down, grounded or strafed at least 30 aircraft suspected of ferrying drugs.

Under that threat, pilots demanded huge fees to fly drugs, or refused to fly at all. The price of raw coca began to plummet in Peru because it became harder to transport to Colombia for processing into cocaine, prompting farmers to switch to other crops and drug traffickers to seek out alternative routes and forms of transportation. American officials believe traffickers rely more on river boats than aircraft to move raw coca now, and depend much less on aircraft that are vulnerable to air interdiction efforts.

"There basically is not much moving by air now," said one former intelligence official familiar with the air interdiction program.

Under the new State Department program, Americans in Key West, working for the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, help the Colombians track and monitor suspected drug flights, particularly along the Colombian-Peruvian border. When a suspected flight is detected, a surveillance plane, with a Colombian crew and an American observer, is sent in to intercept. The Colombian air force can then send in a military jet to interdict and shoot down the suspect plane or force it down.

Mr. Charles said that since the September incident, he believes that the Colombians understood that the United States could not tolerate mistakes in this high-risk program.

"They need to be really thoughtful, this has to be done right," he said. "There can't be any slip-ups." After receiving the American message following the September incident, he said, "they did get serious."

Mr. Charles added that he believed the program was working well.

[Source: UJames Risen by New York Times, NY, Usa, 08Jan04]

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