Claim of FARC-Al Qaida link rescinded

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO  |  Aug. 9, 2002 at 5:52 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 9 (UPI) -- A top State Department official has rescinded a statement made under oath before a federal court that claimed Colombian rebels and narco-traffickers had trained at al Qaida camps in Afghanistan, after top intelligence and law enforcement officials disputed the claim.

Assistant Secretary of State R. Rand Beers -- who heads the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement -- signed a declaration last November that said members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were thought to have received training at Al Qaida camps located in Afghanistan.

Lawyers for a class-action suit brought against Reston, Va.-based DynCorp -- which performs aerial defoliation mission of Colombian cocoa fields -- claim the statement was an intentional attempt to convince a federal judge to dismiss the suit based on national security concerns.

On Thursday, Beers filed a corrected version of the proffer that removed the statement and corrected other, less significant, errors.

The two declarations were filed in support of a motion to dismiss a civil suit against DynCorp, the largest State Department contractor, which performs a host of military, interdiction and support functions for the U.S. and Colombia governments in the fight against Colombia's drug cartels and insurgents.

DynCorp and the State Department are trying to convince U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts to dismiss the class-action lawsuit filed last September by an estimated 10,000 Ecuadorians against DynCorp because a trial could compromise the wars on both drugs and terrorism.

The suit claims the defoliation missions flown by DynCorp have resulted in chemicals blowing across the border between the two countries and has led to a major loss of crops and severe health problems for the local population. His decision on the motion is pending.

"Any disruption through this litigation of the aerial eradication of illicit drug crops in Colombia will undermine national security by depriving the United States of a key weapon in its arsenal for stemming the flow of illicit narcotics into this country and by allowing international terrorist organizations in Colombia to continue to reap huge profits from drug trafficking with which they will target U.S. interests and American lives," the proffer says.

The document then lists over 60 points that support the claim that the lawsuit should be dismissed based on national security concerns and without regard to the merits of its points.

One point in the original proffer made the case for links between FARC and al Qaida, including the presence of FARC personnel in Afghanistan as part of a close relationship between the two groups.

"It is believed that FARC terrorists have received training in Al Qaida terrorist caps in Afghanistan," Beers says in the original document.

"I wish to strike this sentence," the new version filed by Beers says. "At the time of my declaration, based on information available to me, I believed this statement to be true and correct."

"There doesn't seem to be any evidence of FARC going to Afghanistan to train," a U.S. intelligence official said. "We have never briefed anyone on that and frankly, I doubt anyone has ever alleged that in a briefing to the State Department or anyone else."

"That statement is totally from left field," said a top federal law enforcement official, who reviewed the proffer. "I don't know where (Beers) is getting that. We have never had any indication that FARC guys have ever gone to Afghanistan."

"My first reaction was that Rand must have misspoke," said a veteran congressional staffer with extensive experience in the Colombian drug war. "But when I saw it was a proffer signed under oath, I couldn't believe he would do that. I have no idea why he would say that."

In an interview, Beers said that in the ensuing period since he filed the original document it has become clear it is unsupportable.

"At the time it was put before me in November, I had received some indications that it was possible," Beers said. "In the hindsight of history I determined that I could no longer stand by that statement and corrected it in a re-filing."

Beers said that outside counsel for DynCorp had supplied him with a rough draft version of the original proffer and that he and his staff had made some changes to it before filing it last November. But he could not recall whether the disputed sentence was added by the State Department or was already included in the document. But he did explain that the FARC-al Qaida connection had been mentioned previously.

"I do remember that at a point in time there was some discussion with an official that this could be happening," he said.

Terry Collingsworth of the International Labor Rights Board, which is co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said the mistake indicates that the State Department and DynCorp were eager to tie Plan Colombia -- the multi-billion dollar aid package that pays for DynCorp's contract -- to the post-Sept. 11 terror attacks.

"They are so desperate to keep this suit away from a jury that they'll say anything to convince the judge it's related to terrorism," he said.

Intelligence and law enforcement officials did confirm a suspicion that radical Muslim groups -- including some terror organizations -- have sent operatives to South America to engage in drug and gem smuggling, arms trading and money laundering. Several U.S. government, law enforcement and congressional sources confirm that the government suspects that agents of Hamas and Hezbollah -- two Muslim groups fighting Israel -- and from Al Qaida have spent various amounts of time in the South American drug zones.

"These places are among the most lawless in the world, it seems like a perfect place for some of these guys to operate," said one investigator. "We know all those groups have guys down there."

The $7.5 billion package of Plan Colombia aid includes a limited number of military advisers, aircraft, and intelligence and logistic support. DynCorp contract pilots and the Colombian police use State Department and Colombian planes to fly spraying missions to defoliate huge tracts of cocaine-producing plants.

DynCorp also contracts to the Colombian military to perform airborne search and rescue missions and the planes and helicopters flown by the company frequently come under fire from insurgents and drug cartels.

Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine and its narco-traffickers have incredible amounts of power in the country, mostly due to the billions of dollars generated from drug sales. Power struggles between the cartels and the government have killed tens of thousands since the early 1980s.

The FARC is a key player in South America's longest running civil war. Since the 1960's it has been battling the government for control of much of the country. In recent years, FARC officials have allowed the Colombian drug cartels access to much of its territory in exchange for taxes on the drug trade that are estimated by U.S. officials at between $500 million and $1 billion a year. Until recently, the FARC administered a section of Colombia the size of Switzerland in a mostly autonomous manner.

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