MUSKEGON, Mich. -- A top-ranking Republican said he will call for a new federal inquiry into an alleged CIA cover-up in the 2001 military attack on a small plane in Peru that killed an American missionary and her infant child.
Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the ranking Republican on the House Select Committee on Intelligence, said the attack that killed Veronica and Charity Bowers can be traced to a reckless CIA-sponsored drug interception program that had already downed numerous other planes.
Hoekstra also said the CIA may be responsible for a widespread cover-up designed to hide embarrassing details about the Bowers' deaths and similar incidents in the skies over Peru between 1995 and 2001.
A new report from CIA Inspector General John Helgerson accuses the agency of running a reckless air interception program for illegal drugs and ignoring regulations and procedures designed to protect innocent air travelers.
That type of disregard for procedure might have led to the unnecessary downing of several private planes during the six-year life of the "Narcotics Airbridge Denial Program," culminating with the Bowers tragedy, Hoekstra said.
"To say these deaths did not have to happen is an understatement," said Hoekstra, who also represents the Bowers' hometown of Muskegon.
"The CIA knew about repeated serious issues with this program but took no corrective action, which could have prevented this needless tragedy. Making matters worse, the inspector general found continuous efforts to cover the matter up and potentially block a criminal investigation."
The CIA has admitted that proper procedures were not followed during the April 20, 2001, attack on the missionary plane carrying the Bowers family, according to Hoekstra.
The attack, by a Peruvian Air Force jet, resulted in the death of Veronica "Roni" Bowers, 35, and the Bowers’ 7-month-old daughter, Charity. Her husband, Jim Bowers, the Bowers' young son, Cory, and pilot Kevin Donaldson survived.
The couple had been working in Peru with the Pennsylvania-based Association of Baptists for World Evangelism when the attack occurred. Jim Bowers, who has remarried and was recently working as a missionary in Africa, could not be reached for comment.
CIA officials claimed the tragedy was an isolated incident and its air interception program had been operating smoothly and legally to that point.
Hoekstra, however, said the report suggests that approximately 10 other private planes were shot down over Peru in the years prior to the Bowers tragedy.
In many of those incidents, strict federal procedures for identifying, following and trying to make contact with suspect planes were routinely ignored, and at least some of those planes may have been shot down without cause, Hoekstra said.
By the time the Bowers' plane flew into the danger zone, disregard for the rules was apparently standard operating procedure, Hoekstra said.
So the Peruvian military plane that shot down the Bowers plane may have been doing nothing different than it had in the past -- shooting and killing without proper warning or justification, Hoekstra said.
"(The CIA) told us this was the first time that anything happened out of the ordinary, that all guidelines in the past had been meticulously followed, and that was a lie," Hoekstra said. "Every shoot-down prior to this, they never followed the rules as meticulously as they should have."
The two Peruvian pilots who shot down the Bowers plane spent 10 months in prison in their native country but were never charged with a crime. The U.S. Justice Department also declined to bring any criminal charges following an investigation.
"If there had been accountability in the program, if there had been respect for procedures and adherence to the law, the Bowers (family) never would have been shot down," said Hoekstra, who said he recently shared the new information with Jim Bowers.
"It was the senseless killing of a family, done by an agency that wasn't following the rules."
Hoekstra, who was chairman of the Intelligence Committee during the initial investigation of the tragedy, said he now realizes that CIA officials who testified before his committee, and answered his personal questions, may have been lying or concealing part of the truth.
Hoekstra said he would call for a new federal inquiry of the now-defunct drug interception program, the Bowers incident and the alleged CIA cover-up.
"We need to follow up as aggressively as we can," Hoekstra said. "We cannot have an intelligence community that covers up what it does and then lies to Congress."
A statement issued by the CIA indicated that the agency is taking the Inspector General's report seriously.
"As soon as Director (Michael) Hayden got the Inspector General's report in late August, he read it and recognized the seriousness of the matter," the CIA statement said.
(Steve Gunn writes for The Muskegon Chronicle in Muskegon, Mich.)