CIA: Subvertin’ Democracy Since 1947…
“CIA Accountability Hits New Lows”
John Prados, Senior Fellow at the National Security Archive in Washington D.C., writes in ‘Foreign Policy In Focus’ this fortnight that the CIA are currently involved in sometimes lethal operations, in which they often fail to follow approved procedures, lie to avoid penalties, and only receive a slap on the wrist if caught. Prados examines an episode being investigated from 2001, prior to the 9/11 attacks.
During 2001 the CIA was cooperating with Peru’s air force in preventing airborne drug-smuggling. The idea behind the programme was that the CIA would identify target planes, and the Peruvians would either force the planes to land or shoot them down. On the day of 20 April 2001 the CIA identified a plane that was actually carrying the American Bower family, Baptist missionaries on vacation in the Andes Mountains. The CIA contractors tried to reverse their decision, but they could not call off the Peruvian authorities. Then, after making very little effort to actually contact the plane, the Peruvians shot them down – killing the wife and infant daughter, and wounding the husband, son and pilot. CIA director George J. Tenet called the incident his worst as Director prior to 9/11.
The incident itself is one thing, but Prados argues it has importance for looking at both how accountability processes work within the CIA, and the level at which the CIA can approve the killing of individuals (particularly important in these days of CIA Predator assassin-drones over the Middle East and South Asia). In the case of the Bower family, the key facts became known within 10 days of the tragedy. The subsequent strategy of the CIA and the US government was to release some information, with the intent of protecting the larger scheme from public scrutiny. It is apparent that in this incident the CIA operatives had not followed their own proper procedures, and it later became known that US State Department lawyers had originally recommended against a programme for shooting down civilian aircraft.
By July 2001 leaked State Department documents showed that joint training between the CIA and the Peruvians had been inadequate, US embassy oversight was lacking, and the CIA employees could only speak a little bit of Spanish. There was also evidence of previously deadly mistakes. The response of the CIA was an attempt to bury the problem. The US government settled claims for the Bower family of $8 million, and the Justice Department decided against bringing any criminal charges. The CIA Inspector General John Helgerson did not hand down his own report on the incident until August 2008. Thus it required seven years for the internal investigation to be completed. If this represents the real efficiency of America’s leading intelligence agency, then they have some serious problems.
Eventually, however, US Republican politician Pete Hoekstra concluded that the CIA engaged in “repeated failure to follow procedures that resulted in loss of life; false or misleading statements to Congress by CIA officials up to and including former Director George Tenet; and potential obstruction of justice by CIA employees with respect to a Department of Justice criminal investigation”. Intercept procedures were altered without any authority; CIA officers tried to falsely paint the error as a one-off; and the CIA did not meet legal obligations to keep the National Security Council and Congress fully informed. Adverse findings were suppressed, and direct enquiries by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were ignored. Only after Congressman Hoekstra made the incident an issue did the CIA choose to convene a new accountability board – one which eventually reprimanded 16 individuals for minor violations.
As Prados writes, “Lax accountability for CIA operations is not surprising but remains highly disturbing. In the Peruvian case, after nine years only a few mild slaps on the wrist were administered. Today’s CIA Predator attack program, like the Peruvian project, involves remote target identification, instant attack, and high secrecy. The criteria for selecting prospective victims are supposed to be very tightly drawn — but that was supposed to be true in Peru also…” The Peruvian case shows that the CIA is not fault-free when ordering the killing of selected individuals, and when it does make mistakes it does the best it can to hide this information from the oversight committees that are the only kind of tenuous control that American voters have over their overseas intelligence agencies.
As much as the movies make out that intelligence agencies are supposed to be able to do whatever they want, they are actually extensions of what are nominally democratic states. That means that even if Joe Public isn’t allowed to know what they are doing, elected representatives must have the power to watch over and limit their activities. As soon as they start to ignore the guidelines set down for them, break laws they are not allowed to, or deny information to their elected overseers, they are beginning to act as criminals who are paid by the taxpayers. And as much as the movies make this out to be ok, it really isn’t.