In Monday’s New York Times, near the end of a piece about a notorious 2012 DEA-involved shooting incident in Honduras, this gem appears (boldface is mine):
Carson Ulrich, who served as deputy for the FAST team missions at the time of the Ahuas shooting, stands by the D.E.A.’s assertions that the passenger boat was searching for the drugs and had fired on the antidrug team.
Mr. Ulrich argued that the now-disbanded FAST program was “desperately” needed to “bring the rule of law to an area governed by the cartels.” The government inspectors general investigators were biased, Mr. Ulrich contended. “They are slandering heroes. I dare anyone to pick up a rifle and do what these American agents did.”
It’s a relief to say that Mr. Ulrich is no longer serving as a U.S. government employee. Nobody who would say this in a public forum should have any business governing America.
Accusing the authors of a scrupulously documented 400-page joint inspectors’ general report of “slander” is bad enough.
But still worse is how badly Mr. Ulrich just doesn’t get why the Ahuás incident matters. It’s not the incident itself, it’s what happened before it, and especially what happened afterward.
Nobody accuses the DEA agents and the Honduran forces involved in the Ahuás massacre of malice. (Carelessness, yes, as the IGs’ report revealed bad gaps in training, coordination, and procedures. But not malice.) It was 4:00 AM, pitch dark. An agent and two Honduran cops were on a seized boat full of cocaine with a busted engine, floating down a river, poised to confront any traffickers aiming to re-take the seized drugs.
In the dark, the boat collided with another boat that turned out to be transporting civilians (it’s hot there and people sometimes travel before sunrise). Evidence seems to indicate that these civilian passengers didn’t fire, but Honduran forces accompanying the DEA team did. Four passengers died.
Mistakes happen. What shouldn’t happen is years of stubborn denial and insistence on a story that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. What shouldn’t happen is hobbling that scrutiny by withholding information from Congress and even the U.S. ambassador. What shouldn’t happen is stonewalling and slow-walking independent government investigations. What shouldn’t happen is doing almost nothing to honor and make real reparations to the incident’s victims.
The Ahuás incident itself wasn’t the problem. The problem was what happened before, as Operation Anvil was being thrown together over some key officials’ misgivings and objections. The problem was what happened afterward, as the agency “circled the wagons” and refused to own up to the fact that something went badly wrong.
Prior combat experience could help an investigator understand how things went so badly in pre-dawn hours on a river in Honduras more than five years ago. But you don’t need to have “picked up a rifle” to object strongly to how DEA handled this awful incident’s “before” and “after.” Mr. Carson Ulrich, private citizen, misses the point entirely.