WT Business Beat

By Nick Wakeman

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Safe at home--with help from Uncle Sam

The banner headline "Freed!" is prominently displayed over a photo montage on Northrop Grumman Corp.'s Web site this week. The company is celebrating the safe return of employees Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell after Colombian rebels held them captive for five years.

"Today we can share in the joy of knowing that they are free men and safe," said Ronald Sugar, the company's chairman and chief executive officer, in a statement posted on the Web site.

Certainly, this is a very happy time after a horrific ordeal. The events are also a stark reminder that many federal contractors take grave personal risks as they pursue important missions on behalf of the U.S. government.

Let's review the circumstances under which the three contractors were captured in the jungle in February 2003. John McQuaid of the New Orleans Times-Picayune wrote an in-depth investigation on the topic that year.

The contractors were conducting anti-drug missions that entailed flying a plane over Colombia. The plane carrying the three employees, along with the pilot and another man, crashed in the Colombian jungle, where rebels took them captive shortly after. The other two men were executed.

McQuaid makes a number of observations and raises questions about the events. For one, he notes that serious concerns were voiced at the time about the safety of the single-engine planes being used for the missions in Colombia.

In one of his articles, McQuaid suggests the remote yet heartbreaking possibility that the hostages could have been rescued within minutes by Colombia forces.

Government helicopters reportedly were above the crash site within 35 minutes, possibly in time to witness the hostages being led away by armed gunmen. However, McQuaid interviewed a recently retired State Department official who said the helicopters were delayed by 15 minutes because of difficulties in obtaining various clearances to fly. Better timing might have resulted in a much different outcome, the official said.

Another area of inquiry, raised by the hostages' family members and the media in the past five years, has been the U.S. government's efforts to find and rescue the hostages. A spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which had some responsibility for the Colombian missions, addressed that issue this week.

The U.S. military and the Colombian government worked closely over the five-and-a-half years to free the hostages, Southern Command spokesman William Costello told Washington Technology.

The command spent about $250 million on 3,600 flights in connection with efforts to rescue the hostages during that time, he said.

Although he declined to comment on the specific intelligence gathered and the role played by the U.S. military, Costello said the United States contributed to "pieces of the mosaic" that ultimately led to the rescue mission.

"It has been a priority of this command to serve in their successful release," Costello said.

Posted by Alice Lipowicz on Jul 10, 2008 at 7:22 PM


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