- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

Several government reports and experts on Capitol Hill say Plan Colombia, the U.S.-backed war on drugs in the South American nation, is failing. Some say the State Department is mismanaging the operation.

A report issued last week by the General Accounting Office found that despite getting $2.5 billion in U.S. aid to fight drug traffickers, Colombia remains the world’s largest producer of coca, the primary source of cocaine, and has expanded production of opium poppy to become the largest supplier of heroin to the United States.

This year, five Americans have been killed flying missions over Colombia, and three workers on contract to a U.S. intelligence agency are presumed held by Marxist insurgents after their plane was shot down in February.

The GAO report found that Plan Colombia needs to include clear goal and performance objectives for private contractors who do much of the work. Other experts said this should include more effective oversight by Congress and the White House.

While the system allows congressional appropriators to make general decisions on spending, much of the decision making and policy development occurs in the U.S. Embassy in the Colombian capital, Bogota.

Former Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican, who spent time examining the situation in Colombia during his tenure in Congress, says the State Department is managing what he considers a military operation.

“I support Plan Colombia,” he said in an interview. “But it’s a very complex situation and Congress has been content to pass the plan and let State run it. This can’t be done; it needs to be looked at like a military operation.”

Mr. Barr led several congressional fact-finding missions to Colombia during his tenure on the House Government Reform Committee, and one of his last acts as a member was to send a critical report on Plan Colombia to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, in January this year.

“The [Bogota Country Team], particularly the Narcotics Assistance Section at the U.S. Embassy, lacks the tactical acumen, technical knowledge, professional experience and continuity in country to administer effectively the law enforcement and military assistance under Plan Colombia,” the report concluded.

From 2000 to today, the United States has supplied the Colombian army with 72 helicopters, not including the State Department’s air wing that uses private contractors for crop-eradication-spraying missions.

The joint operation is administered through a contract with DynCorp, the Virginia-based subsidiary of Computer Sciences Corp.

A number of other aircraft also are used by U.S. intelligence agencies to fly support missions for the Colombian military in its fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

The GAO report says at least 25 U.S. aircraft have been lost in Colombia since 1998, but through interviews with current and former military advisers, as well as Capitol Hill staff and State Department employees, UPI was able to determine the number of U.S.-titled aircraft lost in that period to be at least 38.

“This is more than the combined losses of aircraft it took to invade both Iraq and Afghanistan,” said one former military adviser to the Colombians. “Part of the problem is inexperienced Colombian pilots, but a big reason is DynCorp’s poor performance in maintaining and operating the aircraft.”

In repeated phone calls, DynCorp failed to provide detailed responses to the charges.

“DynCorp’s safety record speaks for itself,” said a State Department official, who noted that flying aircraft on military missions in a war zone such as Colombia was dangerous.

“Even this year, we have already had 255 confirmed hits on our aircraft from ground fire,” he said.

Since 1998, at least 17 U.S. military, law enforcement and civilian contract employees have been killed directly in the war on drugs in Colombia. At least five of these deaths occurred from February to April.

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