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CIA Dodges Guilt for Peru Tragedy

By Melvin A. Goodman
December 4, 2010

Editor’s Note: As President Obama has replaced his promise of “change” with a tiresome pattern of government “continuity,” he has also extended the longstanding tolerance of misfeasance, malfeasance and criminal behavior at the CIA.

In this guest essay, former CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman recounts another example of how senior CIA officials dodged accountability for a trigger-happy program of shooting down suspected drug planes over Peru that took down a plane carrying innocent civilians:

Last month, the Central Intelligence Agency released a blistering inspector general’s report that dissected a secret drug interdiction program in Peru that was responsible for the death of an American missionary and her infant daughter in 2001.

The report provided a detailed study of the efforts of senior CIA leaders, including Deputy Director John McLaughlin and Deputy Executive Director John Brennan, to cover up Agency malfeasance,  stonewalling the White House, Congress and the Justice Department on the flaws of the interdiction program.

McLaughlin also was a "villain" in the politicization of intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, according to the chief of the Iraq Survey Group, David Kay. Few people remember that it was McLaughlin who actually delivered the "slam-dunk" briefing to President George W. Bush in January 2003.

Yet, the Obama administration has turned to McLaughlin to conduct the internal investigation of the CIA's intelligence failures in the attempted bombing of a commercial airliner and the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2009.
Brennan, who was President Obama's original choice to be CIA director until the Peru report complicated the confirmation process, is currently the deputy director of the National Security Council (NSC).

The detailed report on Peru documents a culture of corruption and deceit at the highest levels of the CIA as well as the interventions of CIA lawyers to stop the Justice Department from pursuing prosecutions in the case.

The CIA office of general counsel's aggressive campaign to prevent a criminal prosecution of the agency officers culminated with Deputy Director McLaughlin's letter to the assistant attorney general that promised "significant disciplinary action" if CIA officers "lied or made knowingly misleading statements" to Congress, Justice, the NSC or office of inspector general (OIG) investigators.

The Peru report carefully documents the lies and the stonewalling, but no "significant disciplinary action" was ever taken.

The CIA tried to present the 2001 shoot-down as an anomaly in an otherwise successful program of drug interdiction. In fact, the inspector general (IG) report documents procedural failures in all 15 shoot-downs that the CIA was involved in between 1995 and 2001. There were no examples of full compliance with intercept procedures in any of the shoot-downs.

CIA officers knew of and condoned the violations, which formed an "environment of negligence and disregard for procedures," according to the report.

Violations of procedures required to intercept and shoot down drug trafficking aircraft occurred in all 15 shoot-downs in which the CIA participated.

CIA personnel in Peru provided inaccurate statements reporting that all required procedures had been conducted; high-level agency officials endorsed these reports and they were passed to Congress and the NSC.

In many cases, suspect aircraft were shot down within minutes of being sighted by Peruvian fighter aircraft, without being properly identified, without being given required warnings and without being given time to respond to warnings. Visual signals were not even conducted in the 11 shoot-downs that occurred in daylight.

Agency officers and lawyers forwarded inaccurate information to senior agency managers as well as to Congress and the NSC. The office of general counsel specifically advised the Peru Task Force not to report findings dealing with malfeasance.

Agency lawyers violated their legal obligations as U.S. government attorneys by making sure that reports of violations did not appear in any formal report and, therefore, could not be provided to the Senate Intelligence Committee, the NSC and Justice.

Even CIA Director George Tenet provided incomplete and misleading briefings to the Congress in testimony that was reviewed by John Moseman, the director's chief of staff, and John Rizzo, the deputy general counsel.

The failure of the CIA to keep Congress and the NSC fully informed of the program violated the agency's legal obligations.

The family of the 2001 victims received $8 million from the U.S. government on the basis of the false assertion that the missionary shoot-down was an aberration in a "program that otherwise had complied with presidentially-mandated procedures."

The Peru report in 2008 as well as IG reports on renditions and detentions in 2004 and the 9/11 study in 2006 created great animosity toward the Office of the Inspector General within the CIA.

Senior members of the National Clandestine Service and the Office of General Counsel were infuriated by the independent and hard-hitting IG investigations. They convinced then-CIA director, Gen. Michael Hayden, to weaken the role of the OIG.

Hayden directed his special counsel to conduct oversight of the IG's work. This action violated the law that created the statutory IG in 1989 – one of the principal reforms following the Iran-Contra scandal – and ignored procedures that were in place to examine the work of the IG.

The unwillingness to pursue failures and to hold senior officials accountable have been part of a larger pattern of CIA corruption over the past three decades.

There were a series of phony intelligence assessments prepared by the CIA in the 1980s, including a tailored report linking the Soviet Union to the attempted assassination of the pope in 1981, for which there was no accountability. (The leader of this campaign to politicize intelligence on the Soviet Union was Robert Gates, who currently serves as President Obama's secretary of defense.)

There were specious intelligence reports prepared in 2002 and 2003 to pave the way for the use of force in Iraq, including a National Intelligence Estimate and an unclassified white paper, once again without accountability. In fact, the authors of these reports had their careers advanced, while some critics were marginalized.

Sadly, President Obama has totally abandoned his campaign commitment to accountability. He has refused to take any action on accountability for torture and abuse, and his administration has refused to pursue legal action against the CIA for the destruction of the tapes that documented the sadistic behavior of CIA employees and contractors.

The CIA officer most responsible for the destruction of the tapes, Jose Rodriquez Jr., said that it would be less damaging to destroy the tapes than to allow them to be seen. Rodriquez, who successfully fought a subpoena to testify before the House Intelligence Committee, could not have been more right, from a cynical point of view.

Clearly, President Obama is following in the footsteps of many of his predecessors, who simply hoped to control controversy at the CIA by failing to address problems directly. His early admonition that he would look forward and not backward has certainly been applied to the CIA.

This approach has not worked well in the past and will fail in the end.
As a constitutional lawyer, President Obama must realize that the stature of international law is diminished when a nation violates it with impunity and that the stature of a nation is diminished when it commits crimes against humanity.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University, spent 42 years with the CIA, the National War College, and the U.S. Army. His latest book is Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA. [This story previously appeared at]

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