- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

The Bush administration yesterday defended plans to expand the U.S. military role in Colombia's guerrilla war as its policy came under fire from lawmakers at both ends of the political spectrum.

In an expansion of the Clinton administration's $1.7 billion Plan Colombia, aimed primarily at stopping the vast flow of illegal drugs to the United States, President Bush is seeking authority in a new spending bill to permit U.S.-funded combat helicopters to be used directly against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the two biggest leftist insurgency groups.

The new policy would also expand the U.S. mission to include training of Colombian forces to protect key infrastructure sites, including a U.S.-owned oil pipeline frequently targeted by the guerrillas.

Maj. Gen. Gary D. Speer, acting commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command, said democratic and social reforms in Colombia were impossible if the government in Bogota failed to deal with the security threat posed by both leftist rebels and rightist paramilitary militias.

"The fact is, without a safe and secure environment, all the other aspects of Plan Colombia cannot take hold," he said.

Otto J. Reich, assistant secretary of state of Western Hemisphere affairs, said the increased support was justified both by the efforts of the Colombian government to curtail rebel drug trafficking and by the threat an unstable government in Bogota posed to its neighbors and to the United States.

"I would stress that our request for new authorities does not signify a retreat from our concern about human rights nor an open-ended U.S. commitment in Colombia," Mr. Reich said, calling the results of Plan Colombia to date "significant but far from sufficient."

Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter W. Rodman said the September 11 terrorist attacks had contributed to the "evolution" in the administration's policy on Colombia as well, heightening the concerns about the links between narcotics trafficking and the financing of terrorist groups.

But with the government's offensive against the FARC sharply intensifying in recent months, several subcommittee members expressed concern about the direction of U.S. policy and about the commitment in Bogota to reform.

"We're going to get ourselves involved in a civil war," said Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican. "Painting this as something dealing with [September 11] is really, really a stretch."

New Jersey Rep. Robert Menendez, the senior Democrat on the Western Hemisphere subcommittee, said he has supported Plan Colombia in the past but needed more answers from the administration about the scope, cost and purpose of the expanded U.S. mission if he was to continue to back the program.

"We cannot fight Colombia's battles for them," said Mr. Menendez.

At a House Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday, another senior Democrat expressed similar reservations.

"If the Colombian government and the Colombian political elite don't step up and do their job, this is futile," said Rep. David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat and the ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee.

But House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, said yesterday he would back the administration plan for Colombia.

"Three hours by plane from Miami, we face a potential breeding ground for international terror equaled perhaps only by Afghanistan," Mr. Hyde said. "The threat to the American interest is both imminent and clear."

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