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How Three Americans Ended Up Hostages in Colombia

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Colombia's audacious rescue of hostages held by the FARC, including American contractors Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes and Keith Stansell, adds an extra bang to the July 4 holiday. But we shouldn't forget the alarming backstory leading up to their captivity, which reveals a lot about the failings of government contracting, and government in general.

The three were contractors for a small surveillance program -- two single-engine planes and a handful of pilots and technical people, most of them ex-military. (I researched and wrote a Times-Picayune series about this.) The lines of bureaucratic authority around this program were hopelessly complex: it operated under the authority of the U.S. Southern Command, but also did work for the CIA, DEA, and State Department. Several more Defense Department agencies oversaw aspects of the program including maintenance, surveillance equipment, and the data it generated. And there were something like a dozen corporations that had a hand in outfitting the spyplanes, keeping them up, and running the program.

You might think of this as a "too many cooks" problem. Quite the opposite. There were hardly any cooks. The surveillance program was embedded in a net of institutions, but operated on its own, without much oversight, just a handful of guys and a lot of cash. As a result, it wasn't equipped to deal with problems that inevitably arose -- mysterious engine failures, increasingly dangerous missions -- when the institutions demanded too much. Two pilots objected to the use of single-engine planes with unreliable engines and were effectively booted from the program for their trouble.

Then, disaster. One plane crashed in the jungle when its engine failed. The American pilot, Tom Janis, was shot dead, as was Colombian officer Luis Alcides Cruz. Gonsalves, Howes and Stansell were marched off to five years of captivity. Six weeks later, the second plane crashed as it was taking off on a search sweep for the missing. This was likely due to a combination of preventable factors, including an inexperienced pilot taking off in unfamiliar terrain, and extreme fatigue. The end result: four men dead, and three prisoners, and our surveillance capabilities undercut.

Then the institutional net broke altogether. Since no one organization was responsible for the program, all fled the scene, metaphorically speaking, when disaster struck. Northrop Grumman transferred the program to a hastily-created shell corporation (the ridiculously-named CIAO, thus publicly linking the hostages to the CIA), and Southcom swept all the bureaucratic errors and oversights under the rug.

Essentially, you had a system in which accountability had been engineered out. And this is the big flaw in military and all government contracting today -- the blurring and breaking of traditional, commonsensical lines of responsibility. No one ever is brought to account when things fall apart, and so ... things keep falling apart.