Feb. 3, 2010 — -- The CIA today was accused of lying to Congress and covering up its role in the deaths of two innocent Americans, a mother and her infant daughter, at the hands of the CIA and the Peruvian Air Force nine years ago.
"If there's ever an example of justice delayed, justice denied, this is it," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R.-Mich., ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee. "The [intelligence] community's performance in terms of accountability has been unacceptable. These were Americans that were killed with the help of their government, the community covered it up, they delayed investigating."
On April 20, 2001, Jim and Veronica "Roni" Bowers and their two children, six-year-old son Cory and infant daughter Charity, were returning to their home in Peru from a trip to Brazil in a small airplane piloted by Kevin Donaldson.
The Bowers' worked as Christian missionaries along a stretch of the Amazon River near Iquitos, Peru, a remote jungle region near the Brazilian and Colombian borders heavily traveled by drug traffickers.
The CIA and the Peruvian Air Force were working in the same area, trying to interdict the drug smugglers. Starting in 1995, they'd operated a joint program to intercept drug planes, shooting them down if necessary.
On April 20, a CIA spotter plane saw the Cessna in which the Bowers family was flying and alerted the Peruvian Air Force. What happened during the next hour and 49 minutes is captured in a CIA videotape.
The CIA spotter plane, with two operative aboard, sneaked up behind the Cessna as it flew over the Amazon.
"We are trying to remain covert at this point," one of the CIA pilots on the plane can be heard to say on the tape.
The CIA pilot describes the aircraft as a high-wing, single–engine float plane, which is accurate, that it has picked up on the border between Peru and Brazil.
But the CIA personnel misidentified the craft as a drug plane. The CIA alerted the Peruvian Air Force, which scrambled an interceptor. Over the next two hours, the CIA personnel would express doubts, but would not correct their error, and would repeatedly violate what the White House believed to be strict rules of engagement.
Said former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, who served in the White House at the time on the National Security Council, which created the anti-drug program, "Either the CIA spotter aircraft or the interceptor is supposed to get up close, identify the plane from the tail number, try to indicate to the plane that it should follow them to the ground."
That did not happen. Instead, the decision was made not to try to identify the tail number, because it might allow the plane to escape.
" You know, we can go up attempt the tail number," says a CIA operative on the tape. "The problem with that is that if he is dirty and he detect us, he makes a right turn immediately and we can't chase him."
When the Peruvian Air Force jet arrived it issued a warning to the target plane, saying, 'We will shoot you down." The warning was in Spanish, which the Bowers and their pilot could understand, but it was on the wrong frequency.
The CIA pilots begin to have doubts. "This guy doesn't, doesn't fit the profile," says one. But nothing was done to pull the plane back.
The CIA then asks a Peruvian Air Force liaison, "Are you sure is bandito? Are you sure?"
"Yes, okay," says the Peruvian.
"If you're sure," responds the CIA operative.Then more serious doubts were quietly whispered.
"That is bull—," says one CIA operative. "I think we're making a mistake."
"I agree with you," says the other operative.
A minute and a half later the gunships opened fire and the Bowers' pilot, Donaldson, screamed in Spanish for the jet to stop.
"They're killing me. They're killing us," yells Donaldson on the tape.
"Tell him to terminate," says one of the CIA operative to the Peruvian liaison. " No. Don't Shoot. No more, no mas."
The Peruvian liaison starts yelling at the pilot, "Stop! No mas, no mas, Tucan no more."
"God," says one of the CIA pilots.
By then the damage was done. Trailing black smoke, it headed for a river to land, with Veronica Bowers and her daughter Charity already dead from bullet wounds and the pilot wounded in both legs.
Jim Bowers, his son Cory and Kevin Donaldson survived. But for almost nine years, the CIA misled Congress, the White House and the dead woman's parents about how and why the agency defied the rules established to make sure innocent people were not killed.
"I want to know the truth," Garnett Luttig, father of Roni Bowers, told ABC News. "I want to know why. I wonder why my baby's gone. Don't they understand that?"
Said Gloria Luttig, Roni's mother, "I want somebody to have to stand up and say I was responsible. I want him to know what a mother's heart is like."
On Wednesday, the CIA said its nine-year long investigation had determined that 16 CIA employees should be disciplined, including the woman then in charge of counter-narcotics.
Many of them are no longer with the CIA, and one of those involved said his discipline was no more than a letter of reprimand placed in his file, which he was told would be removed in one year.
A CIA spokesperson issued a statement to ABC News Wednesday that placed the blame for the shootdown on the Peruvian Air Force, and said its own internal review had shown no evidence of a cover-up.
"The program to deny drug traffickers an "air bridge" ended in 2001 and was run by a foreign government," said the spokesperson. "CIA personnel had no authority either to direct or prohibit actions by that government. CIA officers did not shoot down any airplane. In the case of the tragic downing of April 21st, 2001, [sic] CIA personnel protested the identification of the missionary plane as a suspect drug trafficker."
The date of the downing was April 20.
"This was a tragic episode that the Agency has dealt with in a professional and thorough manner," continued the statement. "Unfortunately, some have been willing to twist facts to imply otherwise. In so doing, they do a tremendous disservice to CIA officers, serving and retired, who have risked their lives for America's national security."