- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2003

BOGOTA, Colombia The Web site for California Microwave Systems, a unit of defense giant Northup Grumman, shows an image of a plane soaring against a picturesque mountain range next to a military-looking helicopter whipping its blades furiously in the sky.
"Our real-time intelligence systems have been used in peacekeeping operations in Korea, Haiti and Bosnia, and for counternarcotics operations in Colombia and South America and the Caribbean," the site says.
California Microwave Systems (CMS) specializes in imagery, communications and electronics intelligence.
But that's about all one can find out about the company that was operating an intelligence mission in the Colombian jungle when its single-engine Cessna 208 crashed in guerrilla territory last month.
On Feb. 13, Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fired on the CMS plane as it was trying to make an emergency landing in Caqueta, about 220 miles south of Bogota. Afterward, the rebels executed American Thomas John Janis, 56, and Colombian Sgt. Luis Alcides Cruz, and captured the Cessna's three other passengers, all U.S. citizens and Defense Department contractors.
They are being held in a high-stakes game of diplomatic poker in which FARC is demanding that they be traded for guerrillas in Colombian jails.
Washington has refused to negotiate, and a massive manhunt is under way.
CMS is just one of at least seven private military companies operating in Colombia's jungles, where the U.S. mission is increasingly shifting from counternarcotics to counterterrorism.
The companies, and their myriad subcontractors, are not required to disclose their activities or personnel to any government agency, making their operations impossible to track or even keep up with.
A recent telephone call to the offices of CMS was referred to Northup Grumman's press division. Northup Grumman's spokesman would not elaborate on a brief statement released after the kidnappings. The statement confirmed that three employees were missing but did not name them.
The spokesman would not say how many CMS employees work in Colombia.
On Feb. 20, President Bush sent a letter to Congress pegging the number of temporary and permanent military personnel in Colombia at 208 and the number of civilian contractors at 279.
Congress has placed a limit of 400 American military personnel and 400 civilian contractors working at any time. The limits apply to Plan Colombia, an anti-narcotics assistance package on which the United States has spent nearly $2 billion since 1998.
But the cap can be exceeded in an emergency, such as the recent kidnapping, and for the first time since Plan Colombia began, there are 411 American military personnel on the ground in this war-torn Andean country.
Peter Singer, a foreign policy fellow with the Brookings Institution who wrote the upcoming book "Corporate Warriors," argues that there are ways to get around the cap.
He estimates that as many as 600 contract employees could be working in Colombia at any given moment.
That's because the U.S. government has long hired non-U.S. citizens, who don't count toward the cap, Mr. Singer said."
Paul Watzlavick, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, said the embassy is only responsible for estimating the number of contract employees related to Plan Colombia.
As for the larger number of those not related to the anti-narcotics program, Mr. Watzlavick estimated that it was "pretty evenly split" between social services, such as aid to displaced people, and military operations such as protecting the oil pipeline in Arauca, which is not part of Plan Colombia.
Big contractors working in Colombia include Northup Grumman, which operates U.S. radar sites, and DynCorp, which runs the State Department's aerial spraying to defoliate coca plants in the same guerrilla-ridden territory where the CMS plane crashed.
Each low-flying spray plane is accompanied by a search-and-rescue squadron.
According to a September 2001 General Accounting Office report, "Aerial eradication missions are dangerous, and as a normal course, helicopter gunships and search-and-rescue aircraft accompany the eradication aircraft."
In fact, at least three DynCorp pilots have been killed in accidents since 1997. Spray planes have been hit by hostile gunfire at least 70 times during the past year, U.S. officials say.
In February 2001, American contractor helicopters came under rebel fire when they swooped in to save a Colombian National Police aircraft shot down by FARC in Caqueta while on a spray mission.
Though Americans were not allowed to operate the helicopters' guns, they had M-16 assault rifles, and all DynCorp personnel carry pistols.
As of late March 2001, there were a little more than 100 U.S. DynCorp contractors in Colombia, according to the American Embassy in Bogota and a roughly equal number of third-country nationals and Colombian citizens.
In the wake of the CMS abductions, a U.S. official vowed that American policy would continue unchanged.
"Contractors are going to provide a big role in Plan Colombia for some time to come," said the official, who asked not to be named.
As for whether security protocol would be altered in the wake of the incident, another U.S. official said, "We simply cannot provide escorts for every plane. It's dangerous out there."
A third U.S. official said spray planes are afforded the extra security because they typically fly so low, while intelligence missions typically fly at higher altitudes.
The Cessna 208 was flying at 17,000 feet when it had engine trouble.
Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, which supports demilitarization of the conflict, argued that the CMS incident is likely to increase the role of contractors in Colombia.
"God forbid this should happen if they were uniformed military personnel. This whole episode has hardly made it to the front pages here," Mr. Isacson said.

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