WASHINGTON - After a secret three-year investigation, federal prosecutors have decided to end a criminal inquiry into whether at least four Central Intelligence Agency officers lied to lawmakers and their agency superiors about a clandestine antidrug operation that ended in 2001 with the fatal downing of a plane carrying American missionaries, Justice Department officials said this week.
"The Justice Department has declined a criminal prosecution," said Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman, in response to a question about the previously undisclosed investigation. The conduct under scrutiny was part of a C.I.A. operation authorized by President Bill Clinton beginning in 1994 to help the Peruvian Air Force to interfere with drug flights over the country.
The Justice Department's decision ended an inquiry that current and former government officials say was the most serious to focus on the official conduct of C.I.A. officers since the Iran-contra affair in the late 1980's. More broadly, the inquiry had been seen within the C.I.A. as a message that employees could be held accountable for operations that go awry, at a time when officers at the agency are coming under scrutiny in other areas, like the interrogation and detention of terror suspects.
"A criminal investigation is something that breeds a risk-averse culture at C.I.A.," said a Bush administration official familiar with the case.
The officials said the investigation had not been directly related to the act of shooting down the plane, which was carried out by a Peruvian Air Force jet after the missionary plane was misidentified as a potential drug smuggling aircraft by a C.I.A. surveillance plane operated by contractors. An inquiry by the two countries in 2001 found that the action, in which an American missionary, Veronica Bowers, 35, and her 7-month-old daughter, Charity, were killed, was the result of language problems, poor communications and shortcuts in following established procedures.
Instead, the officials said, any charges would have stemmed primarily from earlier actions in which C.I.A. officers in Peru allowed an erosion in safeguards drawn up in consultation with the Justice Department, in part as protection against possible criminal liability.
The rules of engagement for the operation had initially required that visual contact be established with any suspected drug plane before shots were fired, but that requirement was quietly dropped in the years before the plane was shot down, apparently out of concern that the precaution posed a safety hazard to Peruvian and C.I.A. aircraft.
The criminal investigation focused on whether the officials lied in closed-door testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee and to their C.I.A. superiors about events surrounding the shooting down of the missionaries' plane, a Justice Department official said. The inquiry was conducted by lawyers in the department's counterterrorism section.
The Justice Department official said prosecutors assembled a large body of classified evidence in the case, which was reviewed by senior lawyers on at least three occasions before the decision was made to drop it. James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general, was briefed on the internal decision making, the official said. It is unclear whether a grand jury was used.
Intelligence officials said the decision still left open the possibility of administrative sanctions against the C.I.A. officers, depending on the findings of the agency's inspector general. The Justice Department dropped the case on Thursday, one day before Alberto R. Gonzales formally took over as attorney general.
The details of the case had remained tightly held even within the Justice Department and the C.I.A., current and former government officials said. But they said the investigation had sorely rankled senior officials at the C.I.A., who for at least two years had repeatedly pressed senior officials at the Justice Department to bring it to a close.
The New York Times first alerted the C.I.A. and the Justice Department in late January that it was preparing to publish an article about the investigation. The agencies declined to comment about it until Friday, when Mr. Sierra, the Justice Department spokesman, said the department would not prosecute.
The officials would not identify the C.I.A. officers who were the subjects of the investigation, but said that some were now serving at a senior level within the C.I.A. They said that those who faced potential charges included at least one former C.I.A. station chief in Lima, Peru's capital, at least one former chief of the aviation mission assigned to a base in Peru, and at least one official who had been based at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va.
After an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2001, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the panel said publicly that the C.I.A. had failed in its responsibilities in overseeing the program. But it has never been disclosed that the Justice Department had been considering charging C.I.A. officers with crimes in the matter.
Among the questions explored by the Justice Department was whether a law passed by Congress in 1994 that was intended to protect American officials from liability in the destruction of drug-trafficking planes remained valid. The legislation, sponsored by Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, required that extensive precautions be taken to identify suspect aircraft, and some prosecutors appear to be making the case that the actions taken by C.I.A. officers invalidated the Congressional exemption.
After the plane was shot down, the Bush administration transferred authority over the aviation mission, known as the Air Bridge Denial program, from the C.I.A. to the State Department. But the question of whether to resume operations is still being discussed by the United States and Peru.
In 2002, the Bush administration approved a settlement in which the government paid a total of $8 million to the family of the victims and to the pilot, Kevin Donaldson. Ms. Bowers's husband, James Bowers, a missionary of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, their young son, Cory, and Mr. Donaldson all survived the incident.
The current and former government officials who agreed to discuss the matter said they could not speak for the record because the case involved classified matters and remained under administrative review. But they said that the State Department had initially referred the case to the Justice Department for possible prosecution, and that the C.I.A.'s inspector general had conducted interviews and other investigative work.
A C.I.A. official who spoke on condition of anonymity would say only, "Of course, we will look at all administrative options."
At one point last year, some former government officials were notified that they could be called as witnesses before a federal grand jury in the matter, former officials said. Others were questioned by lawyers from the State Department, the Justice Department and the C.I.A. The C.I.A. officers who were subjects of the investigation, as well as others who were questioned, were advised by the C.I.A. to hire private lawyers. It is not clear whether the officers will be reimbursed by the government for their legal fees.
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