Secretary of State Colin Powell said when U.S.-sponsored drug-interdiction flights resume over Peru and Colombia, those governments will have the ultimate say in whether aircraft believed to be involved in drug-running are shot down. The program was suspended a year ago after a Peruvian jet downed a plane carrying a U.S. missionary family - killing an American woman and her infant daughter.
The new interdiction program, expected to resume within six months, will have elaborate safeguards to prevent a repeat of last year's tragedy including U.S. personnel fluent in Spanish riding aboard surveillance planes to monitor safety in critical situations.
But appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mr. Powell said the life or death decisions on whether a suspected drug plane will be shot down will rest with the militaries of the two South American countries.
"Ultimately, the decision to employ lethal force against an airplane that might be trafficking in drugs has to be that of the nation, and not something that would be ordered by the United States. They have to have national sovereignty over their own armed forces conducting such operations, and that has always been the premise upon which these flights have been flown. So we will help them. We will help identify, help make sure that we know what is being gone after. But the actual use of the lethal force, and the decision to use that lethal force, is a sovereign decision for the nation concerned," Mr. Powell said.
The State Department announced the outlines of the revised program this week after a long review of last year's mistaken shoot-down, which was attributed to lax procedures including poor communication between the U.S. surveillance flight that tracked the missionary plane and the Peruvian fighter pilot who attacked it.
Under proposed reforms, the State Department will supervise the program rather than the CIA, and the South American governments will publicize the operations and enforce them only in defined geographical areas so that innocent pilots are not taken by surprise when intercepted.
Until its suspension last year, the interdiction program had run without serious mishap for seven years and been credited with sharply reducing airborne drug traffic.
Most of the surveillance flights will be flown by Peru and Colombia with refurbished planes that will be transferred to them by the United States. The flights will not resume until details are negotiated with the two countries, and President Bush gives the final go-ahead.