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U.S. Continues to Withhold Real-Time Information on Suspected Andean Drug Flights


August 1994

The chairmen of two House subcommittees criticized the Clinton administration yesterday for its continuing refusal to resume sharing intelligence data on drug flights with Colombia and Peru (Thomas W. Lippman, "US Refusal to Share Intelligence in Drug Fight Is Called 'Absurd'," Washington Post, August 4, 1994, A12).

Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-NJ), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), chairman of the Subcommittee on International Security, denounced as "absurd" the administration's argument that the flow of information to the Andean nations should be cut off because it might be used to shoot down civilian planes and thus expose U.S. officials to legal liability that could result in prosecution. "This is the case where Justice Department lawyers -- to justify their own existence -- have invented a legal difficulty which does not exist," Torricelli said at a joint hearing of the two subcommittees. "When bureaucrats have their choice between defending bureaucracies and defending civilization, they defend the bureaucracies," Lantos said.

Torricelli and Lantos said the Defense Department's May 1 decision to cut off sharing information had disrupted years of U.S. drug-fighting efforts in Colombia and Peru and had led to a substantial increase in drug flights to the U.S. However, administration officials said lawyers from five departments concurred with the Pentagon's decision. They said that the administration would like to continue sharing information but that they are precluded from doing so by current law. 18 USC 32 contains felony provisions for communicating information that endangers the safety of any aircraft in flight.

Steps have been taken to amend the laws. The 1995 Defense authorization bill contains language that would permit intelligence sharing to resume. The bill, however, is still in conference.

The Department of Justice maintains that until then, intelligence data can not be shared. However, under questioning from Torricelli, Deputy Assistance Attorney General Teresa Roseborough told the panel that no U.S. attorney had considered prosecuting anyone on charges related to the shooting down of civilian aircraft before the intelligence data was cut off.

Michael Skol, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs agreed with Torricelli's assessment that relations between Colombia and the U.S. have been severely damaged by the intelligence affair and by U.S. questions about Ernesto Samper and Colombian Prosecutor General Gutavo De Greiff's integrity and commitment to fighting the drug war.

Some Latin American narcotics officials maintain that the administration's arguments are only excuses to retreat from an expensive front in the Bush administration's "War on Drugs" (James Brooke, "U.S. Halts Flights in Andes Drug War Despite Protests," New York Times, June 4, 1994, p. 1).