An internal investigation by the Central Intelligence Agency has found that the agency withheld crucial information from federal investigators who spent years trying to determine whether CIA officers committed crimes related to the accidental downing of a missionary plane in Peru in 2001.
The August 2008 report by John L. Helgerson, the CIA’s inspector general, could lead the Justice Department to reopen its investigation into the shooting, examining in particular whether senior CIA officers obstructed justice or lied to Congress by burying details about the incident and the CIA’s broader counternarcotics program.
A CIA surveillance aircraft mistakenly identified the plane as a drug-smuggling aircraft, and a Peruvian military jet shot it down, killing an American missionary and her 7-month-old daughter. The Justice Department closed its investigation into the matter in 2005, declining to prosecute agency officers for any actions related to the incident.
But Helgerson’s report, parts of which were made public Thursday, said that the Justice Department investigators and Congress were never allowed access to internal CIA reviews that portrayed the downing as one mistake among many in the CIA counternarcotics program in Peru. The report said the agency routinely authorized interceptions of suspected drug planes “without adequate safeguards to protect against the loss of innocent life.”
The counternarcotics program was begun under President Clinton in 1994. The report said the CIA program had operated for years outside legal boundaries set by the White House.
In releasing unclassified parts of the report on Thursday, Rep. Peter J. Hoekstra of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said he was asking the Justice Department to consider whether the CIA’s actions after the incident amounted to obstruction of justice.
“This is about as ugly as it gets,” said Hoekstra, who added that the Justice Department had closed its investigation based on a review of “incomplete information.”
The missionary family that was aboard the aircraft when it was shot down came from Hoekstra’s district in Michigan.
Paul Gimigliano, an agency spokesman, said that Helgerson’s report had been delivered to the Justice Department, and that Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director, had yet to decide what internal actions to take.
“CIA takes very seriously questions of responsibility and accountability,” Gimigliano said. “The only accountability process worthy of this agency is one conducted with care, candor and common sense. That’s the single goal here.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
The fatal incident occurred in April 2001 over the remote Amazon forest of Peru. The CIA had been operating in the region as part of a joint counternarcotics mission with the Peruvian air force, which had the authority to intercept or shoot down planes that did not comply with orders to land.