America's neglected war

Posted: Feb 20, 2003 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- The capture and murder by narco-guerrillas of U.S. intelligence operatives in Colombia was a disaster waiting to happen. It was predicted in a report submitted a month ago by visiting congressmen, who described the U.S. government's multi-billion-dollar Plan Colombia as an expensive failure. The incident signified that the Colombia crisis is getting worse. Details of the mission and crash of the single-engine Cessna 208 are obscure, thanks to the U.S. government's reluctance to talk about secret operations. Sources in Colombia, however, report the plane contained four contract employees of an office in the U.S. embassy in Bogota under CIA control. Their fate was sealed by multiple security blunders, in the opinion of special operations experts. With the U.S. preparing for combat in Iraq and trying to avoid it in Korea, Colombia is America's forgotten war -- remembered occasionally by events such as last week's plane crash. The U.S. investment of $2.2 billion in Plan Colombia, badly in need of congressional oversight, is largely ignored on Capitol Hill. An exception is former Rep. Bob Barr, who after his defeat in the Georgia Republican primary made a fact-finding mission to Colombia late last year as his congressional valedictory. In a report to Speaker Dennis Hastert Jan. 10, Barr concluded: "With billions of taxpayers dollars invested in Plan Colombia, there is no active peace process today, and the drug-funded killing continues at a disturbing pace." He was prophetic: "Force protection for U.S. military and contractors now serving under Plan Colombia is inadequate." Just how inadequate was found last Thursday by four U.S. civilians employed by California Microwave Inc, of Sunnyvale, Calif., a communications service, when their plane crashed. Government officials deny that they were CIA agents, and technically they were not. In fact, they were under contract to the Office of Regional Administration in the Bogota embassy, which is a covert CIA operation. U.S. officials called this crash accidental, but other sources claim the plane was shot down by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas. They would have reason. While the cover story had the plane monitoring coca production, embassy sources said the plane was an ELINT (electronic intelligence) operation monitoring the FARC's notorious 15th Front to gather information on the whereabouts of guerrilla commandantes. Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador in Bogota and one of the rising stars of the U.S. Foreign Service, was reported by associates as "coming unglued" after the incident. A single-engine plane on an intelligence mission is considered unacceptable. Nor was there a "chase" plane following to quickly come to rescue the intelligence aircraft if necessary. On last Oct. 15, when Barr was on his Colombian mission, he was informed by U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Richard Baca of a foolproof "search and rescue" plan if any of the American planes went down. "Instead," a veteran special operations officer told me, "this was amateur hour." While one U.S. civilian and a Colombian army sergeant (the fifth man in the crashed plane) were immediately shot to death by FARC, intercepted radio conversations Monday indicated the other three Americans also might be doomed. Until the incident, 80 Americans had been taken hostage since 1990 and 12 had been murdered since 1995. In the wake of the latest attack on Americans, Barr's ignored report should be scrutinized. He was assigned the fact-finding mission last fall by Rep. Dan Burton, then the House Government Reform Committee chairman, accompanied by then Reps. Ben Gilman and Brian Kerns. A veteran of many visits to Colombia, Barr found no good news. The Barr delegation "found the security situation in Colombia . . . has continued to deteriorate in the past decade" and that "the chaos has increased markedly" over the last decade. The report contended that the Bogota embassy's "cheery good news" is not justified or accurate. The delegation's report lists 15 failings, including lack of protection for contract employees. Barr, Gilman and Kerns are no longer in Congress, Republican term-limits have removed Burton as committee chairman, and Burton's successor, Rep. Tom Davis, has gotten rid of committee staffers specializing in Colombia. Davis left Washington Tuesday on his own mission to that bloodstained country. He could start by looking into the latest disaster.