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Privatizing the Drug War; How the CIA Enlists Private Companies to Evade Congressional Scrutiny of Growing US Military Involvement in Colombia and Peru

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When the Peruvian air force downed a plane carrying American missionaries last month, it was a US plane, piloted by private contract employees of the CIA, that provided them with their intelligence. Since the 1940s the CIA has used private companies, and even front companies owned and operated by the CIA, to provide “plausible deniability” and hide some of its most sensitive operations from congressional oversight and US law. [includes rush transcript]

Throughout the 1990s these companies, often staffed by former military officials and CIA employees, have helped to mask growing U.S. military involvement in Latin America. Today we will look at four of the companies working with the U.S. government to privatize the drug war.


  • Juan Tamayo, Andean correspondent, Miami Herald.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: When the Peruvian Air Force downed a plane carrying the American missionaries last month that killed Veronica Bowers and her baby, it was a U.S. plane piloted by private contract employees of the CIA that provided them with their intelligence.

Since the 1940s, the CIA has used private companies and even front companies owned and operated by the CIA to provide plausible deniability and hide some of its most sensitive operations from congressional oversight and U.S. law.

Throughout the ’90s, these companies often staffed by former military officials and CIA employees or ex-employees, have helped to mask growing U.S. military involvement in Latin America.

And today we’re going to look at the four companies, at least four of the companies working with the U.S. government to privatize the drug war, increasingly the U.S. government contracting with private American firms to carry out quasi-military functions.

We’re joined now from Bogota, Colombia by Juan Tamayo, who is the Andean correspondent for the Miami Herald.

Can you lay out what this practice of, well, what critics call the hiring of mercenaries is and the four companies that you focused on in your piece?

JUAN TAMAYO: What’s happened was that in the 1990s the U.S. military began shrinking very radically. There was an increasing sense in Washington that we did not want to be involved in foreign hotspots. And coupled with the trend toward sort of privatization of all kinds of public functions, there was a rise in the use of private contractors to carry out what had been, what are quasi-military functions.

There is — I think the Pentagon now has something like 700,000 part-time consultants and contract workers. But there’s basically about thirty or so companies that specialize in carrying out these quasi-military functions. Most of it is sort of logistic support, airframe/aircraft maintenance, teaching foreign armies how to develop their own doctrine, how to train their troops, how to set up a defense ministry, and obviously how to manage or work some of the more sophisticated equipment that is being used in the field of defense these days.

The downside, there’s many arguments surrounding the use of these people. One is that some of the U.S. agencies carried — charged with carrying out some of the programs simply don’t have the sort of competence to carry out those programs. For example, for some reason it is the State Department that carries out most of the counter-drug programs in Latin American. There is an office within the State Department called the International Narcotics & Law Enforcement Affairs Bureau. They get the bulk of the congressional money for counter-drug programs in Latin America. And obviously the State Department doesn’t have a lot of pilots. The State Department worries about things like embassies and everything else. They don’t know specifically how to run crop-duster airplanes that are used to spray weed killers on the coca crops. Those kinds of things.

So those kinds of specific functions then are hired out. There’s any number of companies that are doing these things. There’s sort of four big ones in Latin America right now. The biggest one is Dyncorp. It has — it basically runs the State Department’s Air Force which is called the DOS Air Wing. It probably has something like forty, fifty airplanes, helicopters in Latin America in support of the counter-drug mission. And by any standard it would be one of the larger sort of air forces in Latin America. So Dyncorp runs most of that, a big chunk of that. They provide helicopters.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Juan Tamayo. He is the Andean correspondent for the Miami Herald in Bogota, Colombia, and we’ll come back to him in just a minute here on Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Juan Tamayo, Andean correspondent for the Miami Herald based in Bogota, Colombia, talking about the privatization of the drug war going through the four major companies that do contract work with the U.S. government. Many call them mercenaries.

Dyncorp is what you were just talking about, Juan Tamayo. How many pilots, mechanics does Dyncorp employ?

JUAN TAMAYO: In Colombia right now, I think it’s about between seventy and eighty. That includes everything from the pilots of the spray aircraft that are used to fumigate the coca fields, the mechanics that maintain those airplanes, the pilots of the helicopter — armed helicopters that provide security for the spray aircraft, and a special helicopter that’s called a search-and-rescue helicopter, that sort of oversees the entire package and kind of jumps in when anybody needs any help.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve interviewed many Colombians who talk about the problems of the defoliation of the coca fields, with people getting ill from the pesticides, etc. What responsibility does this contracted out or outsourced firm have for the public health?

JUAN TAMAYO: Well, it’s not just the issue of public health. This is one of the great question marks that surrounds the entire outsourcing program, which is what constraints are put on them? What responsibilities do they have? If something goes wrong, who pays for the broken dishes? There’s a lot of questions as to under what kinds of conditions these people operate. For example, the regular U.S. military in Colombia cannot go out on operations with the Colombian military or the police that may result in any sort of combat.

On the other hand, the Dyncorp proves, specifically the search-and-rescue crews, their job is to basically jump into a hot situation. And whether that is an accidental crash or a fire fight, that’s what they’re contracted to do. So all of the contracts with the State Department and with the Department of Defense are not public. So we don’t — no one seems to know, basically, except the contracting agency and the contractors themselves, what kinds of restrictions are placed on the contractors when they get into the country.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking, really, as you point out in your piece, about the hiring of mercenaries, and the U.S. government is doing it.

JUAN TAMAYO: Well, you know, in my talks to a lot of the people involved in the contracting dispute, the word “mercenary” is pretty loaded, because there are international treaties regarding the bans on the use of mercenaries. These people, 99% of them, are not contracted to perform any fighting duties, per se. They’re contracted to teach, to fly counter-drug missions, those kinds of things. So there’s a real thin line there that the people who support the use of outsourcing prefer to call it “outsourcing,” and the people who oppose it think that this is close enough to using mercenaries to be bothersome to them and perhaps effect the international treaties in some way.

AMY GOODMAN: And mercenaries are illegal in the United States. Is that right?

JUAN TAMAYO: Well, I guess it depends on your definition of a mercenary, and apparently when the United Nations was trying to forge a treaty against mercenaries, banning mercenaries, particularly in Africa, they ran into all kinds of problems in the definition of “mercenaries.”

A company like MPRI out of Virginia sends out, hires out sort of instructors. And these are business suit types. They wear a suit and jacket and ties, and they go into the Defense Ministry, and they tell them sort of how to set up a logistics system or how to set up a training program or how to write certain manuals. The definition of a mercenary gets lost in there somewhere. It’s clearly something to be concerned with. It’s clearly something that is a gray area right now.

AMY GOODMAN: MPRI, Military Professional Resources, Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia, tell us who they’re made up of and their role in Colombia.

JUAN TAMAYO: Well, they’re made up of retired senior U.S. military people, but also retired Defense Department people, State Department people, CIA people. Their role is to provide this kind of tutoring for foreign militaries. They’ve been very active in the Balkans. They work with the Croatians. They worked with the Bosnians and I think the Macedonians — and the Macedonians.

They also had a relatively small contract down here for about a year. They sent down fourteen retired military people to help the Defense Ministry with issues such as logistics, administration, legal procedures, the broader types. These are people again, as I said, that wore jackets and ties. They’re not out there with wearing uniforms. They’re not armed. And the idea was to try to bring a little bit of — or rather increase the efficiency of the Defense Ministry, including the military and the police. Their contract expired March 8th, and it was not renewed. Apparently there was money — there was U.S. money in the pot to renew the contract, but the Colombians felt that the work of the MPRI people apparently was not worthwhile to them.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Juan Tamayo, who is the Andean correspondent for the Miami Herald, has a piece in yesterday’s Miami Herald called “Private Firms Take on Jobs, Risks for U.S. Military in Andes Drug War.” The head of MPRI?

JUAN TAMAYO: Yeah, the head of MPRI is a general, retired general, Carl Vuono, who was head of the U.S. Army during Operation Desert Storm. And the —

AMY GOODMAN: You also write that — go ahead.

JUAN TAMAYO: And the sort of leading officers are all of that caliber: former head of the army in Europe, etc., former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, at that level, very high-caliber people.

AMY GOODMAN: As well as ambassadors.

JUAN TAMAYO: Ambassadors, also. Exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: It sounds like many U.S. Army. You quote Congress members who are deeply concerned about this issue, not to mention military people, but someone like Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, who we’re going to have on the program, she wants to go the route of proposing a total ban on these contractors or mercenaries, whatever.

JUAN TAMAYO: I think this is one of the rare times — rare issues, in which both the liberals and the conservatives in Congress are almost agreed that there’s something wrong with the program that needs to be fixed. The main complaint, the main concern, is the lack of control over the activities of these people.

American government officials in countries like Colombia are under a relatively well-detailed sets of restrictions. You cannot do this, you cannot do that. It is unclear whether these contractors are subject to the same kinds of restrictions, thereby opening the question of can they do things that would be ultimately embarrassing to the United States, ultimately against the aims of U.S. policy. That would be one side of the argument against using these people.

The other side, from the conservative side, also may be that we’re paying a lot of money for contractors to do work that local forces could do. In other words, some of the money that perhaps is going to Dyncorp to fly around the country and to perform certain duties, they argue, should be taken over by the Colombian police or the Colombian military. The idea is you spend money not just in running these programs, but in training the local people, the Colombians or the Peruvians, or whatever the case, in performing these functions so that eventually you can get out of the business and leave it for the local forces to manage the program.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Tamayo, you talk about these four private firms that are doing the work that — of the U.S. military, in a sense: Dyncorp from Western Virginia and MPRI, Alexandria, Virginia. The other two you talk about are Aviation Development Corporation, which was involved in the killing of the U.S. missionary and her daughter in Peru, and AirScan of Rockledge, Florida. Can you briefly describe their roles?

JUAN TAMAYO: Rockledge is — I mean, sorry, AirScan is a company out of Florida that owns several small airplanes equipped with infrared vision devices and long lens television cameras. And they have been working in Angola and in Colombia. It started out mostly in oil field securities, sort of flying around and scanning the area for possible threats to the oil fields.

In Colombia, specifically, they worked to protect the Cano Limon pipeline, which is regularly bombed by leftist guerrilla groups here. I think in the last year they’ve hit it sixty times or so. It’s — I think it’s been almost closed, the pipeline, in the last three, four months, because of the number of attempts against it.

According to AirScan’s own webpage, they have also sold or leased one of these aircraft to the Colombian Armed Forces and trained some of their crews in how to use it.

The other thing they do is they run some of the aerial surveys of coca-growing areas. Their cameras are pretty sophisticated, and I’ve been told they can tell the difference between sort of dead and dying and sort of on the way to dying coca bushes. So they use the AirScan airplanes basically to survey the area and spot specifically where coca fields may be, and then that’s followed up by Dyncorp’s spray aircraft that will spray the Glyphosate on it. So this is also a company that also does this in Angola.

And besides that, it has some contracts with the — I think it’s the U.S. Department of the Interior. They do things like survey of national parks, and they’ll count deer, wild horses, burros, those sorts of stuff. It is not just military use. A lot of these companies in fact have fair hand in some of the civilian side of these things. I believe Dyncorp was involved in providing some of the computers that were used in the U.S. Census, and DOI runs the ROTC programs in about 217 U.S. universities. And some of these skills are quite sort of transferred to civilian situations.

AMY GOODMAN: And then there’s the company that has brought these private contractors for the U.S. military under renewed scrutiny, and that’s Aviation Development Corporation, involved with the downing of the plane in Peru that killed the missionary and her baby daughter. What is its role? Where is it based? Who’s in it?

JUAN TAMAYO: Well, we know very little about the company, other than the fact that it has a CIA contract to operate some intelligence-gathering airplanes in the region. One of the things that they became known after the shoot down of the missionary’s airplane in Peru, they were the radar plane that guided — or rather they operated the radar plane that guided the Peruvian interceptor to the shoot down.

However, I think one of the things that we found in doing all this is that these aircraft are not simple radar aircraft. They’re not out there only to interdict suspected drug-smuggling airplanes. They carry all kinds of electronics and can be used in any number of ways to monitor radio or telephone transmissions to locate people on the ground, for example, kidnapped Americans or Americans who have been kidnapped in this region. We even had one senior intelligence official telling us that airplanes can pick up the emissions from the microwave ovens that are used to dry cocaine, the finished cocaine, the refined cocaine. I was told later that that was not a very effective way, because of the jungle canopy above these laboratories usually sort of disperses the signals fairly well or disguises them.

But they’re used in all kinds of intelligence-gathering operations, everything from trying to track drug shipments to the arrival of the chemicals that you need to process cocaine, to trying to track down people who kidnapped Americans and trying to track down guerrillas who may be or may not be involved in the drug trade also.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you say that it was a CIA jet that helped target the American missionary plane shot down by Peru, part of a secret U.S. government intelligence-gathering program. The plane, though, itself was run by this company, is that right? It was run by Aviation Development Corporation.

JUAN TAMAYO: In fact, I think, the plane was owned by the Department of Defense. The plane, it’s sort of tough to follow some of these things. The program itself is on the so-called black budget. It’s part of the U.S. intelligence program, and therefore there’s very little data on it. We understand that the plane was owned by the DOD, and that the Department of Defense didn’t feel that it had the crews or the ability to carry out a small program like that. Therefore they contracted — first they passed it on to the program, to CIA. Then the CIA in turn contracted this company to actually carry out the flying and operation of the equipment aboard.

AMY GOODMAN: Interestingly, you quote a veteran of these counter-drug operations in Latin America, talking about who’s on these planes, saying — quoting, you know, who’s on these planes.

JUAN TAMAYO: Right. Some of the people that have been looking over the programs say that the contractors, regardless of how good or bad they may be, are not sort of sworn officers of the United States. They are not legal representatives of the United States, and this particular veteran of the U.S. military and some of the involvement in Latin America said he was aghast that none of the people on the CIA airplane involved in the Peruvian incident were sworn to defend the U.S. — had sworn an oath to the U.S. Constitution. He was very angry about that. In other words, they were all sort of unofficial people. He called them all, rather negatively, all just businessmen. They were just people doing — not bound by any of the rules of the U.S. government, per se.

And again, this speaks to the major problem in this, is exactly what controls are on these people? If they’re in Colombia, can they go out? Is there a rule that says, no, you cannot engage, you cannot join the Colombian military in a firefight with guerrillas? Is there a rule that says that if you’re in Colombia, no, you cannot make contact with guerrillas? Let’s suppose that someone gets it into their head to try to broker peace in his own way, is there a rule that says, no, you cannot do that? Is there a rule that says you cannot aid the rightwing paramilitaries that are operating in Colombia? So what are the restrictions on these people? It seems like at this point very few people really know, and the indications are that the restrictions are not many, in fact.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Again, Juan Tamayo is the Andean correspondent for the Miami Herald. He’s speaking to us from Bogota, Colombia. Thank you.

JUAN TAMAYO: Thank you.

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