The Bush administration appears increasingly focused on undertaking a risky military rescue of three Americans held hostage more than four years by drug-trafficking leftist rebels in Colombia.
Current and former U.S. officials say the U.S. government has failed to engage in routine negotiations or take other diplomatic steps of the kind used in similar hostage situations.
Additionally, the Justice Department refuses to consider exchanging the Americans for two Colombian guerrillas held by the United States.
The Bush administration denies neglecting to pursue all avenues to safely free the three men — contract workers Marc Gonsalves, Tom Howes and Keith Stansell, who were captured in February 2003 by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
"I'm deeply concerned about their fate," President Bush said in an interview with RCN TV of Colombia on Wednesday, before he left on a five-nation trip to Latin America. Bush visits Bogota, Colombia's capital, on Sunday.
Addressing the FARC, Bush said: "Give up these hostages. You're making it clear to the world the kind of people you are when you take innocent life and hold them hostage. And it's very sad for the families here in America."
The hostages' families have nearly lost hope of seeing their loved ones alive.
"My father has not been here to see me grow up," Lauren Stansell, the 18-year-old daughter of hostage Keith Stansell, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "The government is just letting them sit there."
Captured when their plane crashed
The three Northrop Grumman Corp. contractors were on what U.S. officials describe as a drug surveillance mission over Caqueta, a rebel stronghold and cocaine-producing region in Colombia's southern jungle, when their plane crashed on Feb. 13, 2003.
Gonsalves, 34, Howes, 53, and Stansell, 42, were captured almost immediately. Officials say two other men on the mission, an American and a Colombian, were killed in the crash. The three surviving hostages have been heard from only once.
The government believes they are still alive — the only shred of comfort for Northrop Grumman and family members frustrated with what they describe as a lack of urgency in getting the hostages released.
Over the past seven years, the U.S. has pumped $4 billion into Colombia to combat the FARC and bring down the world's largest cocaine industry. The 15,000-strong peasant army, whose principal source of income is the drug trade, has been branded a terrorist organization by the United States.
Steps not taken
Current and former officials closely involved with the hostage situation spoke of administration shortcomings in numerous interviews with the AP over the past two months. They agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, either because they were not authorized to talk publicly or for fear of retribution from their employers.
They say the administration has failed to:
- Deploy Foreign Emergency Support Teams to Colombia. The Washington-based special squads are made up of counterterror experts and crisis workers from the departments of State, Justice, Defense, and the 16-agency intelligence community. They are routinely deployed when a U.S. citizen is taken hostage overseas.
The State Department said the teams were not deployed because there wasn't enough information about the hostages' location or whether they were alive.
- Aggressively gather intelligence in Colombia about the physical and mental health of the three men, where the FARC might be holding them, how frequently they are moved and other information that would help the administration decide how to proceed.
Intelligence resources are limited in Colombia, the officials say, because of the administration's focus on disrupting terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
In a Jan. 23 letter to Northrop Grumman vice president James F. Pitts, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the Bush administration has "increased resources devoted to this issue in Bogota," including "fully leveraging all intelligence and available national resources." A copy of the letter was obtained by the AP.
- Regularly send FBI negotiators to Colombia to work with third-party intermediaries — like the International Red Cross or the Catholic Church — who might appeal to the rebels. The United States generally does not negotiate directly with terror organizations.
FBI spokesman Rich Kolko said the negotiators were in Colombia shortly after the hostages were captured and have since provided guidance to U.S. and international officials. FBI negotiators and investigators, as well as agents in Bogota, "have been engaged in this case since the beginning," Kolko said.
Family members of the hostages say their pleas for help from their elected representatives in Congress have gone unheeded.
"There was nothing they could help us with, is the impression they gave us," said Marc Gonsalves' father, George Gonsalves, 59, of Hebron, Conn.
George Gonsalves said he repeatedly asked for help from Connecticut's lawmakers in Washington, "and of course, they never did anything with it. Can't see anything, up to even today, where they've done anything."
A delicate balance for the company
Throughout the saga, Northrop Grumman has found itself in the uneasy position of trying to push the administration to do more for the hostages without risking its own government contracts. The Los Angeles-based defense and technology company relies heavily on contracts to maintain annual revenues of over $30 billion.
Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell worked for Northrop Grumman's electronic systems unit and were carrying out a Defense Department contract for airborne reconnaissance and surveillance. All three lived in Florida and have children at home.
Each was familiar with aircraft, family members said. Gonsalves served eight years in the Air Force. Stansell worked as an electrician and mechanic on Chinook helicopters after a four-year stint with the Marine Corps. Howes was a pilot instructor.
Shortly after the men were captured, the Justice Department warned Northrop Grumman against sending backpacks of sneakers, medication and other items to the hostages, according to several people familiar with the conversations. The government cautioned that if the items ended up in the hands of the rebels, it would violate the USA Patriot Act's ban on providing material support to terrorists, the people said.
The Justice Department declined comment.
No prisoner exchange
Although the FARC has said it would consider including the three contractors in a larger prisoner exchange, the Colombian and U.S. governments have ruled out a swap.
Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell are among an estimated 62 political prisoners being held by the rebels. There have been no demands for ransom. The Colombian government is holding about 500 of the rebels. The United States has two rebels in custody.
Last month, the Justice Department won a conviction in a drug case against Nayibe Rojas "Sonia" Valderama, a FARC financial officer. A second rebel — Ricardo Palmera, also known as Simon Trinidad — is scheduled for trial in Washington late this month on drug and kidnapping charges related to the three Americans.
Asked about the possibility of swapping Trinidad and Valderama for the Americans, officials across the administration said that would be too big a concession to a terror group.
Last month, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe told reporters that an envoy recently sent to speak to rebel representatives about possible negotiations encountered only threats. "So the decision of the government is the following: In the face of this new threat, we will work harder to destroy the rebels," Uribe said.
This week, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, who oversees Western Hemisphere affairs, said the U.S. would "be very happy" if Uribe could negotiate a humanitarian accord that would result in the hostages' release.
Uribe, however, has made it clear he doesn't want to negotiate a prisoner exchange, and advocates military rescues as the only hope of freeing the hostages — something that, until very recently, U.S. officials were reluctant to support.
"Sometimes there have been disagreements on how to proceed," said Stephen Lucas, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which has been involved in the situation for the Pentagon. "It's a friendly arrangement, but sometimes the answer is, 'No, we're not going to do it that way.' ... We are talking about a sovereign nation. The bottom line is, the government of Colombia will decide what is done."
The rescue option
The letter from Hadley, the national security adviser, indicates the U.S. government is leaning toward a rescue as the best way to save the Americans.
Writing to acknowledge the four-year anniversary of their capture, Hadley said he aimed to "reiterate our commitment to rescuing our American citizens and update you on our efforts to bring them home safely." He also noted the government's efforts "to locate and rescue our Americans."
Northrop Grumman, the government's second-largest defense contractor, was not comforted.
Thanking Hadley for his correspondence, Pitts wrote back on Feb. 12, calling himself "concerned with the letter's exclusive focus on military rescue as an option for securing our employees' safe return." He urged the government to step up its diplomatic options.
"With four years having passed since the kidnapping, and given the inherent dangers in a military rescue, it is critical that other options be pursued," Pitts wrote in his letter, a copy of which was obtained by the AP.
In a January trip to Bogota, Shannon of the State Department said the U.S. supports a Colombian military rescue of the Americans. "We have a lot of confidence in the (Colombian) government and the security services here in finding a way to free the hostages and we want to work together to achieve this," Shannon said.
FARC has killed hostages in the past
The FARC has killed hostages during past rescue attempts, and Northrop Grumman and the three Americans' families have pleaded with the government to reject that option. Last weekend, seven elite Colombian commandos were killed, cut down by machine-gun fire, in a jungle raid on a FARC base as they descended from a helicopter on ropes.
David Heyman, a counterterror specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said rescue missions "are inherently very, very dangerous," and noted that the United States has had mixed success in carrying them out.
Mariana Howes, Tom's wife, has stopped telling her 10-year-old son that his father will come home.
Tommy Howes Jr. was 5 when his father was taken hostage. Mariana Howes, of Merritt Island, Fla., says the government no longer tells her anything about what it is doing to free her husband, so "my hope is not very high."
Thomas Jr. "doesn't know the whole story," she said. "He still thinks (his father) is coming back sometime. I've tried not to talk about it lately because I don't know if he's coming back or not."