- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Mismanagement by the State Department has “seriously jeopardized” the U.S. airborne drug-eradication program in cocaine- and heroin-rich Colombia, the program’s former director says.

The department’s inability to provide “consistent competent oversight” has contributed to the death of one pilot who was shot down, two others killed in separate crashes and the capture of three others by Marxist rebels, John McLaughlin said in a recent letter to a House committee.

Mr. McLaughlin, who retired last month after 25 years as head of the Office of Aviation in the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said the program is in such disarray it should be transferred to a federal law- enforcement agency.

He said the program is losing aircraft “at the rate of one a month” and without the “exceptional skill of the pilots, the commitment of our mainstream recovery teams and the dedication of our Combat Search and Rescue crews,” several more pilots and crew would have died or been captured.

“Intelligence sharing has been a real problem,” Mr. McLaughlin said in a telephone interview yesterday from his home in Florida. “We’d fly over an area, take a real shellacking, come back and report, and they’d tell us ‘Yeah, we knew something was there.’

“If that were the case, why would they send an airplane in, knowing the area was heavily defended?”

While there have been no aircraft lost during the past month, Mr. McLaughlin said it was not due to improvements in safety, but because the department is “avoiding flying and have moved the aircraft to areas that have already been cleared.

“They are trading off productivity. If you don’t fly, you don’t get hit,” he said.

The State Department declined this week to address specifics of the McLaughlin accusations, except to say that “safety has been a number one priority of this program since the beginning.

“It is a measure of our success that the environment has become more dangerous,” said a department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

He said aircraft involved in spraying had taken 350 “hits” from ground fire this year compared with 190 last year because, in part, much of the remaining coca is growing in guerrilla-controlled areas.

Safety precautions had been “ratcheted up” to meet those challenges, he said.

Mr. McLaughlin dismissed the department’s explanation that the only places left to spray were heavily defended. He said he doubted the department had “good intelligence” showing what areas of the country were heavily defended.

He also said that while the program had sought to spray 160,000 acres of coca, “they’ll be lucky if they kill 110,000. State is drawing into a protective stance and the tragedy is that this is the only way to stop drugs from coming into the country.”

The U.S. government has spent $2.5 billion since 2000 for aircraft, military equipment and training to protect drug spraying and other counternarcotics operations in Colombia. Leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries finance their insurgencies through drug sales.

Senior congressional staff members are investigating the accusations and, according to one Capital Hill source, several have recommended the State Department be stripped of the program in favor of another agency.

“McLaughlin’s views track what many now believe and, based on the ongoing relationship between terrorists and drug dealers, we can’t afford not to fix the program,” said a senior staffer, who asked not to be identified. “We’ve got to move it to a law-enforcement agency capable of proper oversight.”

In his letter last month to Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, Mr. McLaughlin said high-ranking State Department officials were unwilling and unable to correct program problems, despite numerous warnings. As a result, he said pilots and crew members were at risk.

“Costly resources are being wasted. Morale is declining. A very important national program is in serious jeopardy,” he said.

David Marin, spokesman for Mr. Davis, confirmed that the matter is under investigation, adding that proper oversight of the program has become “a top priority.”

Mr. McLaughlin said that had the Costa Rican pilot employed by the U.S. government survived his Sept. 21 shoot-down, he would have been captured by members of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He said search crews looking for the twin-engine OV-10 plane “found a heavy concentration of FARC.”

He also said that after the February crash of a plane operated by a separate U.S. contract agency, which was not identified, State Department officials declined to clear two of his air crews for an immediate rescue attempt, holding them on the ground for 15 minutes.

“The gunships arrived overhead after two of the crew had been executed and just in time to see the three surviving … captives being led off by their FARC captors,” he said. He said the crew members included four Americans, one of whom was killed, and a Colombian, who also was executed.

An investigation of the crash by the State Department and the Federal Aviation Administration concluded a lack of intelligence about the area led to the crash.

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