Politics & Policy

Our Broken CIA and the Death of Innocents

Some within our intelligence community seem to think that they are above the law.

On April 20, 2001, one of the worst tragedies in the CIA’s history occurred when an infant baby girl — seven-month old Charity Bowers — and her mother, Roni, were killed when a bullet passed through Roni’s body and lodged in Charity’s skull. The projectile was fired by the Peruvian air force, which shot down the Bowers’ single-engine Cessna with the assistance of the CIA as part of a counternarcotics program. Charity’s father, brother, and the pilot survived a crash landing on the Amazon River.

A CIA Inspector General report concluded that baby Charity and her mother died due to the apparently deliberate failure of CIA officers to follow proper procedures to protect the lives of innocent civilians — not only in the 2001 shoot-down of the Bowers aircraft, but in all previous shoot-downs that occurred in Peruvian airspace between 1995 and 2001.

The CIA Inspector General also found that persons within the CIA mounted an extensive cover-up of the facts of this tragedy from the White House, the Justice Department, and Congress. The CIA lied to Congress and the executive branch about the downing of the Bowers plane to shield its personnel from being held accountable and from possible prosecution.

Shocked? You should not be. Such behavior has become all too commonplace at America’s premier intelligence agency. The CIA is supposed to closely coordinate all intelligence matters with the executive branch and Congress because their very nature precludes transparency and normal accountability mechanisms. It has repeatedly failed to do so.

Instead, the CIA briefs Congress as little as it believes it can get away with, and frequently plays what I call the “20-questions game” — where CIA officers tell Congress about important information only if members of Congress stumble upon the exact right questions. In addition, I have been long concerned that some within the agency have intentionally undermined the Bush administration and its policies over the last few years. This argument is supported by the Valerie Plame case, and the long string of unauthorized disclosures to the news media from an organization that prides itself on being able to keep secrets.

The shoot-down of the Bowers’ plane is an example not only of CIA incompetence and mismanagement, but of an intelligence subculture that thinks it is above the law. Some CIA managers apparently think they can evade their legal requirement to fully and honestly cooperate with the Justice Department and Congress. How can we trust our nation’s security to intelligence officers who have been so reckless and irresponsible?

In response to the publicity over the CIA Inspector General report, CIA Director Michael Hayden promised to turn over the matter to an accountability board to determine whether any disciplinary action is warranted in the Bowers case. When a board is convened, I plan to testify before it. However, given the CIA’s abysmal record in handling the Bowers case to date, Congress and the Justice Department must also carefully review the relevant facts. The CIA cannot be trusted to investigate this case alone.

The CIA’s repeated failure to keep Congress fully and currently informed requires a shake-up in the Agency’s senior leadership. I am encouraged, therefore, that President-elect Obama has tapped Leon Panetta, a man with significant managerial and Washington experience — outside of the intelligence community — to be the next head of the CIA. I support Panetta’s nomination as part of what I hope will be the first step to clean up the agency and make it more accountable to Congress and therefore the American people. True, he is not part of the intelligence club. That is a positive. A fresh perspective is needed.

Baby Charity and her mother Roni were killed not because of a one-time human error. They died because of an intelligence bureaucracy where parts are broken and which thinks it can operate above the law. Without accountability, U.S. intelligence agencies cannot be trusted to protect our nation from harm or to operate in an ethical manner that will not embarrass our nation abroad or endanger American civil rights at home. Without accountability, U.S. intelligence agencies cannot be trusted with the significant authority they have been given to keep America safe and secure.

Peter Hoekstra (R., Mich.) is the top Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.